Sunday, January 30, 2005

Amazing example of people power in Iraq

Some good news for a change.

Despite the awful security situation in Iraq, despite the gloomy prognostications of many commentators in the West, despite the war on democracy declared by al Zarqawi, the turnout in the Iraqi elections was a healthy 72%:

Polls have closed after a day which saw Iraqis defy the bombers and turn out in their millions to cast their ballot in an historic election.

About 25 people died in a series of bomb attacks staged by Sunni militants trying to scare voters away.

Despite the suicide bomb attacks, voter turnout was 72 per cent, the Election Commission said.

Highest turnout was in the Kurdish and Shia areas, where up to 90 per cent of the population cast their ballots.
However the BBC is quoting a lower but still respectable turnout of 60%. Either figure is quite remarkable in the circumstances. For comparison, the turnout in the last 3 British general elections was 77.7% in 1992, 71.3% in 1997 and 59.4% in 2001.

It thus appears that the Iraqi people have turned out in droves to vote, risking life and limb to do so
. Sadly 25 of them were killed by the insurgents, but overall what else is this but a great success for the project to bring democracy to Iraq?

Those who've been claiming that democracy cannot be brought to the middle east (and, however unwittingly, providing succour for the likes of Zarqawi), should ponder this result very carefully.

Those who're in charge of reconstructing the country and who have promised democracy now have a lot to live up to. The Iraqi people clearly want democracy. Now it must be delivered, we cannot let the Iraqi people down, we cannot let the jihadists and ex-baathists win.

Blair and Bush may yet have serious cause to be proud of their Iraq policy, costly, bloody and marred by mistakes as the process has been.

Indeed, who back in 2000, or even after the 11 Sept 2001, would have thought that the legacy of George W Bush and Tony Blair would include a democratised Afghanistan and a democratised Iraq? Yet now we're well on the way to achieving both.

Now a message to Blair, stop undermining democracy and liberty at home!

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Former anti-terrorist officer says Britain is sinking into a police state.

The Guardian reports that George Churchill-Coleman, who headed Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist squad in the 1980s and 1990s, and who had to tackle the threat posed by the IRA has this to say on the govt's house arrest proposals:

George Churchill-Coleman, who headed Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist squad as they worked to counter the IRA during their mainland attacks in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said Mr Clarke's proposals to extend powers, such as indefinite house arrest, were "not practical" and threatened to further marginalise minority communities.

Mr Churchill-Coleman told the Guardian: "I have a horrible feeling that we are sinking into a police state, and that's not good for anybody. We live in a democracy and we should police on those standards.

He added: "I have serious worries and concerns about these ideas on both ethical and practical terms. You cannot lock people up just because someone says they are terrorists. Internment didn't work in Northern Ireland, it won't work now. You need evidence."

I quite agree. And whom am I to argue with an ex anti-terrorist officer? Incidently, I think I can locate the cause of Mr Churchill-Coleman's horrible feeling: We are sinking into a police state.

On a completely different topic, the blogger behind the auroran sunset has said he's unable to select text on my blog, using the Firefox and Safari browsers. I am able to do so with Firefox, whether I'm logged into the account or not. I've also checked the template and settings and can't find any obvious reason why this should be the case. I've regenerated the whole blog and enabled the facility to email articles to friends to see if this helps. Anyway please let me know if you're having any difficulties.

A note to the auroran sunset if you're reading this.

I've emailed you via the email address you use on usenet. I hope that gets through. I couldn't find any other address on your website and I didn't want to create a new blog on just to send you a comment via the diary (your disabling of anonymous comments limits comments to livejournal users).

Friday, January 28, 2005

Implications of the proposed Control Orders

The govt's proposed control orders have some very worrying implications. Not only will these orders...
  • be imposed on the basis of secret evidence that may be withheld from the suspect themselves,
  • be applicable to British citizens and foreign nationals alike,
  • be imposed by the Home Secretary rather than by the courts, and
  • involve sanctions including indefinite house arrest,
...but they may be imposed on people who are not even accused of any wrongdoing:

Family and friends of terrorist suspects held under house arrest could be subject to tough sanctions even though they have not been accused of a crime, it was disclosed yesterday.

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, said people living with those subject to executive control orders could be banned from using the telephone or internet and searched every time they came home.

Thus if you live with someone the Home Secretary claims is involved in terrorism (but he also claims cannot be prosecuted and the evidence cannot be divulged) you could find yourself being frisked (strip searched?) every time you enter or leave your home, banned from using the internet and phone or even banned from communicating with certain people.

But the potential implications do not stop there. What constitutes sufficient "suspicion" in the mind of the Home Secretary will be key here. He will be advised by the security services. Their intelligence is not fallible, will likely be kept secret and therefore untested in court, and may have been cherry picked by over zealous officials.

If a person is suspected due to having regular contact with a (suspected) terrorist group, does that mean everyone who has regular contact with that person is also suspected? Will they then get subjected to banning orders? And their families? And their friends? How far down the chain will a particular Home Secretary or his advisers go?

What if (some people within) the security services "cherry pick" evidence to get a person they simply don't like silenced this way?

What if the security services are fed disinformation by others to get a person they don't like silenced this way?

Such questions highlight why the evidence should be tested in court.

Then there are further aspects of house arrest (which don't apply to detention in a prison). For example, Alice Thomson writing in the Telegraph points out:

Mr Clarke makes house arrest sound a nice, cosy alternative to locking up a suspected terrorist without trial in prison. All it means is that the suspect's wife won't be able to natter on the phone.

But it's not like that. His Cabinet colleague Peter Hain could tell him. House arrest was used extensively in South Africa when he was fighting apartheid. It meant the incarceration of entire families, who then became the focal point of discontent among communities.

The anti-apartheid activist Hilda Bernstein paints an appalling picture of her family's house arrest in her book The World That Was Ours. She makes it clear that prison would have been better than the suffering her children had to undergo.

Or take Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese Communist Party Secretary, who died this month in China after being under house arrest since the 1989 democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. "He is free at last," said his daughter, who called his incarceration a death sentence.

Saddam Hussein used house arrest to great effect, as does North Korea. And then, of course, there is Burma, where the Nobel prize winner and pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been locked up by the junta for nine of the past 15 years, turning her into a martyr in the process.

House arrest takes away all dignity. It can destroy the lives of individuals who have not been proved to have committed any offence, and can allow grievances to fester. As the Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews said this week, what is the difference between Belmarsh and a bungalow? (Emphasis added)

Suppose you and/or your children live with someone subjected to house arrest, and you all have to be frisked, are barred from using the phone, etc. It is quite possible that your kids will get taunted or bullied at school, that some in your community may regard you with suspicion (no smoke without fire) and persecute you and your kids too. How serious this gets depends on how suspicious/fearful or ignorant those in your community are.

This legislation, by giving the executive the power to lock up anyone it chooses on trumped up charges, has the potential to make the government a more serious threat to the lives of British citizens than the terrorists it's ostensibly aimed at.

I do not say this lightly.

It is precisely when the state acquires such arbitrary power over its citizens that the state becomes dangerous. History has illustrated this time and time again, in Russia, Germany, Eastern Europe, Iraq, Iran, China, North Korea, and indeed the world over (yes I include this country).

We recently commemorated the closing down of the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz at the end of WWII, but it appears we have still to learn the lessons of that dark episode in history.

It might not be this government that abuses this power, but can we trust the next one? Or the one after that?

Those who think our government would never do such things, should ponder how a cultured, developed European country in the 19th century, evolved into the barbaric state of Nazi Germany in the middle decades of the 20th century and should ponder the fact that Hitler was elected to power in (what was at the time) a democracy.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

House arrest without trial proposed.

Charles Clarke announced today his response to the recent Law Lords ruling that indefinite detention of foreign nationals who are suspected terrorists without trial contravened the ECHR.

Instead of detaining them in jail, Clarke has decided to allow indefinite detention of British resident, regardless of nationality and without trial, in their own homes:

Under the new powers, the government would no longer be able to jail suspects without charge, but could forbid them from meeting certain people, impose curfews or electronic tagging on them or confine them to house arrest.

Unlike the previous measures, which were based on immigration law and applied only to foreigners, the new measures could be used against British nationals. The government would not have to prove suspects had committed a crime.

"It's still total loss of liberty, and total loss of liberty without due process is exactly what the Law Lords ruled is wrong," Natalie Garcia, lawyer for two detainees, told Reuters.

"It used to be foreigners. It can be absolutely anyone now. You can be one day, normal citizen minding your own business, next day banged up in your home unable to go out in the garden."(Emphasis added)

And who would decide which people get subjected to this treatment? Charles Clark (or any future Home Secretary):
The proposed changes would mean the home secretary could order British citizens to be held under house arrest without putting them on trial.
Thus the fascist control freaks British government are proposing to give themselves the power to jail anyone in Britain, on the say so of the Home Secretary (not the courts!), and prevent them from communicating with others -- possible restrictions include restrictions on accessing telecommunications/the internet as well as who you can meet.

If this comes to pass, how long will it be before the govt proposes to extend these powers to those suspect of any serious crime rather than terrorism? The excuse being we can't afford to allow (suspected) paedophiles, murderers, rapists, organised criminals, fox hunters, or ID card dodgers to roam freely...

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Glasgow night club chips its sheep customers...

Following in the footsteps of a club in Barcelona, the Glasgow night club, Bar Soba, has decided that its cattle customers can avoid the hassle of having to bring their wallets with them if they get a VeriChip stuck under their skin:

A Scottish nightclub is about to become the first in Britain to offer its customers the chance to have a microchip implanted in their arm to save them carrying cash.

The "digital wallet", the size of a grain of rice, guarantees entry to the club and allows customers to buy drinks on account. Brad Stevens, owner of Bar Soba in Glasgow, said his customers had responded enthusiastically to the idea.

The VeriChip is inserted by a medical professional and then scanned for its unique ID number as a customer enters the bar.

"There are a number of advantages, from instant access, to not having to carry money or credit cards, to letting bar staff know a customer's name and favourite drink," said Mr Stevens. "By the time you walk through the door to the bar, your favourite drink is waiting for you and the bar staff can greet you by name."

What's to stop someone else reading the chip without your knowledge, stealing its unique ID number and creating their own chip using your ID and your money to buy drinks at Bar Soba?

What's to stop someone using this chip to track your whereabouts at other times for more sinister purposes?

It seems that getting yourself chipped is the latest in a line of bad suggestions for what to do with these things, e.g.:
  • A company in Mexico will chip your kids ostensibly as a measure to prevent them being kidnapped. Surely this simply means the kidnappers will now mutilate the kids to remove the things? Maybe they'll even get scanners in order to track the kids to kidnap them in the first place?
  • A couple in the UK were reported to have decided to chipped their daughter after the murder of 2 girls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, in Soham. This received the backing of academic Kevin Warwick.
  • Schemes for chipping schoolkids' clothing, or in tags they wear around their necks to e.g. keep tabs on their arrival/departure from school have been proposed or are being implemented, e.g. in Japan and the US. have this to say about such schemes (and I quite agree):

These so called "security" chips are the 21st century version of permanent cattle brands (indeed the original market for Verichips is for prize cattle and pet cats and dogs) or tattoos.

We find the concept completely unethical, bordering on actually evil. What is there to prevent this technology being used by exploiters of slave labour, pimps and brothel keepers, religous cults, abusive or paedophile parents or police states in order to control the movements of their victims and to prevent escape via actual alarm systems or the fear that "we will track you down if you try to escape"? (Emphasis added)

I'd add that the current uses of these chips for tracking children or allowing you to pay for drinks without having your wallet with you will tend to get people used to having technology in them/their clothing allowing them to be tracked 24/7.

Note that many of us already voluntarily carry around devices that can be used to track us -- our mobile phones. At least we can easily leave them behind or switch them off if we want to stop it. A chip under the skin will be a different matter -- fancy gouging it out just for some privacy?

Friday, January 21, 2005

Key features of the Identity Cards Bill

The Identity Cards Bill can be found online here, and its passage through the House of Commons is due to finish on the 27th January. As points out at the previous link, with only 8 planned sittings and such a short timetable for a complex bill with 184 amendments to consider, it is unlikely this legislation will receive adequate scrutiny in the House of Commons. Once again it will be down to the House of Lords to debate it more adequately.

I shall summarise some of the key features of the bill here.

The National Identity Register(NIR)

Section 1 sets up the NIR, and together with Schedule 1 determines what information will be stored on it. The information to be stored includes:
  • a unique National Idenity Registration Number(NIRN) for each person in the NIR.
  • your date of birth, gender, full name and any other name you've had.
  • your current address plus every address you've ever lived at.
  • your photo, signature and biometric scans.
  • your residential status plus every previous residential status you've had.
  • details of any official identity documents issued to you,
  • the history of all changes made to your NIR record,
  • details of all ID cards issued to you, their validity, whether you've been ordered to surrender them, etc.
  • details of all the information you've provided to register on the NIR and to apply for/renew your ID cards.
  • details of every occasion on which the NIR entry has been accessed by others. Note that when it becomes necessary to have your ID card and NIR entry checked in order to access public services, this item will thus record your usage of those services, e.g. what medical services you've signed up for.

Access to the information on the NIR

Note that where the Home Secretary gets powers to issue orders, the orders must be approved by both Houses of Parliament, unless otherwise stated.

Section 14 allows the Home Secretary to disclose some of the information on your NIR entry to you, or to someone else acting on your behalf, for purposes of verification of the data if you apply to for such access. The information you can get includes:
  • your name, date of birth, addresses and gender.
  • your identifying numbers and the validity of your identifying documents.
  • your photo and signature.
  • whether biometric scans taken from you matched the ones recorded for you.
The information you can access under this section does NOT include the record of changes to your NIR entry or the record of who has accessed your NIR entry. However, section 14(8) does permit access to the NIR record using other legislation such as the Data Protection Act. It is thus not clear whether an individual can get access to the record of who has accessed their NIR entiry.

Section 17 gives the Home Secretary the power to allow a person providing a public service to access the NIR to verify your identity, where the person is also authorised to check your ID card before providing the service (see also Section 15 and 16).

Section 19 sets out which public authorities can access NIR information without your consent (see also Section 20):
  • MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the Serious Organised Crime Agency (see the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill) will get access to all of the information for the purposes of carrying out their functions.
  • The Police, Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise, will get access to all the information, except the record of who has accessed the NIR, in the interests of national security, for preventing or detecting crime and for other purposes specified by order of the Home Secretary. In the case of the IR and C&E they also get access for carrying out their functions and investigating conduct that might incur the penalties they can enforce.
  • Government departments get access to all the information, except the record of who has accessed the NIR, where the Home Secretary prescribes it for the exercising/carrying out of any powers or duties the deparment has by virtue of the Bill or for the issuing/modification of official documents.
Section 22 gives the Home Secretary the power to disclose specified information to a specified individual for specified purposes, by order.

The obligations the bill imposes

Section 6 gives the Home Secretary the power to compel individuals matching a specified description to register on the NIR and get a card by order. Failure to comply incurs a civil penalty of upto £2500.

Section 11 gives the Home Secretary the power to compel any person, by order, to provide information for the purposes of verifying information recorded, or due to be recorded, in the NIR, if he believes the individual has that information in their possession.

Section 12 requires ID card holders to notify the Home Secretary of any changes of circumstances that affect their information on the NIR and any error they become aware of in their NIR entry. The card holders may be ordered to attend a specific place at a specific time and have biometric scans taken and to provide any information required by the Home Secretary. Failure to comply can result in a civil penalty of upto £1,000 pounds.

Section 13 requires people to notify the Home Secretary if their card is lost, stolen, damaged, tampered with or destroyed. The Home Secretary can cancel a card if it appears to him to be lost, stolen, damaged, destroyed, tampered with, issued on the basis of incorrect or incomplete info, the NIR entry has been modified, a change of circumstances requires modification of the card or the card needs to be reissued.

A person in possession of someone else's card must surrender it as soon as practical. The Home Secretary can require the surrender of a card if it is possessed by someone other than the card holder, or the card has been cancelled, expired or is otherwise invalid or if the card is to be reissued or if was acquired invalidly.

Damage is taken to include the card or anything on it having become unreadable or unusable for any reason -- i.e. if the govt's card reader damages your card, YOU are obliged to report the fact.

Failure to surrender a card when ordered, or to notify the Home Secretary of the loss, damage, tampering with, destruction of or stealing of your card is an offence punishable by upto 51 weeks in prison.

Section 15 allows the Home Secretary to issue orders allowing those providing public services to require checking of the ID card before allowing access to those services.

Section 17 allows the Home Secretary to issue orders allowing those providing public services to access information on the NIR to verify a cardholder's identity.

Sections 27 to 31 make offences of:
  • possessing either false ID documents or the equipment for making false documents, with the intention of using the documents for enrolment, on pain of upto 10 years imprisonment.
  • possessing either false ID documents or equipment for making them without a reasonable excuse on pain of imprisonment for upto 5 years.
  • disclosing confidential NIR information without authorisation on pain of upto 2 years imprisonment or a fine or both,
  • providing false information to be included on the NIR or in order to modify information on the NIR. The offence carries upto 2 years in prison, or a fine or both.
  • tampering with the NIR, including any conduct making it more difficult or impossible for the NIR information to be retrieved (e.g. NIR operators going on strike?! The same operators making a mistake that causes a crash?!). The offence carries upto 10 years in prison, or a fine or both. See's comments on this clause.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Home Office stupidity.

I have often been critical of the policies coming out of the Home Office over recent years, but some news reports this week have made me seriously wonder about their intelligence and sanity.

Firstly, The Independent carried an article based on an interview with Sir Stephen Lander who will head up the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which the government will set up under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, once it's made it onto the statute books. In this interview, Lander apparently claims that the Home Office is planning to estimate the impact of different types of crime based on the amount of column inches each category gets in the media:

The priorities that are adopted by Britain's elite crime fighting force will be partly based upon the number of column inches newspapers give to different types of organised criminality, Sir Stephen disclosed.

Researchers at the Home Office have looked at about 30 newspapers, divided equally among broadsheet and compact newspapers, the tabloids, and the regional press, over the past five years. They have calculated which organised crime issues are the most pressing by measuring the column inches and number of stories devoted to each subject. Organised immigration crime came first, followed by drugs.

Sir Stephen explained: "The brainboxes in the Home Office have been putting together a sort of harm model.

"The model basically articulates the harm that is caused to the UK under a number of headings - the rewards taken and made by the criminal; the social and economical harm to the UK; the institutional harm - corruption for example and illegal immigration - and tries to put a cost [on them].

"It also brings into play judgements about the degree of public concern and they have a proxy for this, which is the amount of column inches in the press. Which is not quite right, but is probably as good as you will get. It is pretty rough and ready but it is asking the right questions. It is asking not, what is the incidence of something, but what is its impact.

I hope the Independent has got this wrong. Otherwise it displays sheer stupidity on the part of the Home Office. Using media coverage as a proxy for the impact/concern about crime is quite simply nuts. There are several reasons why one cannot rely on this:
  • The media tend to concentrate on the sensational and rare crimes, hyping them up and giving them far more coverage than far more frequent and mundane crimes.
  • The Home Office will itself influence how much coverage different types of crime get, via their press releases, policy/legislative proposals. As eloquently puts it:
    What about the "climate of fear" hype and spin feedback loop ? The Home Office and Labour party spin doctors leak, brief, spin, send out press releases to target those 30 newspapers, which are then used by another part of the Home Office as the input to their "harm model" !
The overall result will be that the prime motivations determining SOCA's priorities will be overtly political and media driven. SOCA's priorities thus be to tackle the crimes that make the headlines and which cause the (primarily Wesminster) politicians grief. This will also encourage some in the media to hype up crimes that they have personal bugbears about or to hype up crimes to fit their political agendas. We can look forward to the Sun, the Daily Mail and the News of the World having even more influence than now on the priorities the government sets on crime.

As for Mr Lander's assertion that the proxy "isn't quite right" but is "as good as you'll get", this is sheer hogwash. There are plenty of sources of evidence about the impact of different types of crime that will be more reliable, such as the recorded crime statistics, the British Crime Survey and other surveys of the public, the data used by insurance companies to determine their premiums (e.g. actuarial data -- the collection and analysis of which could be commissioned by the govt for this sort of thing), surveys and analyses done by academics studying crime, etc.

The second story concerns prison policy. The Times reports that the government is going to require available prison space to be borne in mind before the passing of custodial sentences. This will be part of a drive to keep prison numbers down. Thus instead of simply sentencing the person according to the severity of the crime and the effectiveness of a custodial sentence to protect the public or rehabilitate the offender, the judge will now have to pass sentences with available prison space in mind. This factor should not be an issue when sentencing an individual for a crime they've committed. The government should predict and provide on the basis of their policies towards and data about crime levels, otherwise those who should go to prison may instead be given non-custodial sentences because the government hasn't ensured enough provision. This will put the public in danger. It will also encourage the government to include custodial sentences in future legislation without increasing funding to match, since sentencing policy will simply change to accommodate any lack of resources.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

"False positives" in the fight against terrorism

Security consultant Bruce Schneier writes regarding the trade offs one has to make in security when dealing with terrorists:

Security systems fail in two different ways. The first is the obvious one: they fail to detect, stop, catch, or whatever, the bad guys. The second is more common, and often more important: they wrongly detect, stop, catch, or whatever, an innocent person. This story is from the New Zealand Herald:

A New Zealand resident who sent $5000 to his ill uncle in India had the money frozen for nearly a month because his name matched that of several men on a terrorist watch list.
Because there are far more innocent people than guilty ones, this second type of error is far more common than the first type. Security is always a trade-off, and when you're trading off positives and negatives, you have to look at these sorts of things.
It is for reasons such as this that one should be very wary of weakening rules such as the presumption of innocence, the right to silence and the prohibition of double jeopardy in order to make it easier to jail those suspected of crime or terrorism. These rules were put in place for very sound reasons. Get any changes to them wrong and the impact is likely to be felt mostly by the innocent. A safer strategy is to bolster the investigative powers and the resources available to the police and security agencies dealing with these problems.

On FoIA and the security services' role

An anonymous commenter has made an interesting point in response to my discussion of the impact of the Freedom of Information Act on the security services. Responding to the point that the processing of any FoIA request will draw resources away from the security services' core duty of protecting the country, the commenter writes:

Not so - in the extreme case that the government itself becomes an enemy of the country, time spent by the security services documenting their activities for the public *becomes* their core duty.(Colour, boldface and italics added)
Of course there is also the option of the security services using their more secretive powers to undermine or overthrow the govt in such circumstances. Either way, the scenario posited would be very dangerous territory to be in and would require considerable bravery and intelligence to deal with.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

More on FoIA requests have responded to my previous article on FoIA requests. They add some further points to those I made myself. As well as noting that section 14 of the FoIA allows departments to reject vexatious requests, they go on to point out:

In any case, the Publication Schemes established by the FOIA in the run up to January 1st this year all, obviously, provide phone, postal addresses, fax and email contacts with the teams of civil servants, well away from the operational "sharp end" of the organisation, who have been tasked and funded to deal with and filter any "vexatious" or "disruptive" requests, and to comply with the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which is the law of the land. (Emphasis added)
This raises a key point. Any sensible implementation of the FoIA by the security agencies should have ensured that those dealing with e.g. surveillance operations or analysis of the data obtained via such operations should not be dealing with the processing of FoIA requests. It should have involved creating entirely separate teams for processing the requests, hired with extra funds to set them up so that existing operations do not get disrupted.

Thus even if processing FoIA requests posed a higher than expected burden the effect should simply be to stretch the FoIA request teams (who should then point out the problem to management) and should not impact on the other activities in the organisation concerned.

Of course that's no excuse for anyone who sends frivolous requests (which will waste taxpayers money and civil servants' time if nothing else), but that is not what I or were proposing to do.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Is wrong to solicit suggestions for FoIA requests? recently asked for suggestions for requests for information to make under the Freedom of Information Act(FoIA).

They will take some of the requests they receive and ask for the information via the FoIA procedures and then track the progress of the requests. This seemed to me to be a valuable exercise in testing out how well FoIA will work in practice, enabling people to hold the government to account for its promises regarding FoIA.

I've received comments from a friend that were very critical of this action (and by implication my support for it). To paraphrase, I was asked if I'd prefer that the security agencies waste time dealing with phoney FoIA requests or if I thought their time was better spent on protecting UK citizens.

I would argue in response that making FoIA requests for the purpose seeing how well FoIA works in practice is an entirely legitimate exercise, so long as it is done with care and they don't flood the govt with frivolous requests.

If they were to carefully choose a handful of requests on the basis of there being a clear public interest in the release of the information, and no strong overriding objections (e.g. no clear reason to invoke the exemptions) then I would argue both that the exercise is a legitimate means of highlighting how well FoIA works in practice and that the burden on the departments processing the requests would be minimal. I hope and expect to do this.

If on the other hand they simply submitted every suggested request without regards to whether the information is already available elsewhere, whether the exemptions would clearly apply and whether the information requested is of real public interest, then I'd agree that would involve a waste of the government's time and resources in processing the requests. I do not support such an exercise.

Note that any FoIA request, valid or otherwise, that is processed by the security services will take time and resources away from their core duties of protecting the country. This point along with the nature of the work they do is, I presume, the prime reason why Section 23 of the FoIA provides an absolute exemption for information supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters (see also Section 2 on the effect of the exemptions). GCHQ, MI5 et al are all explicitly listed as being such bodies.

Of course some processing may need to be done by the security services for the purposes of determining whether the information requested is information that is supplied by or related to the security services. However ISTM that only a small fraction of the likely requests would involve the security services and the exemption will minimise the burden imposed by the remainder.

I'd add that the government has had 4 years since FoIA went through parliament in order to ensure that the security services receive the extra resources they may need to process FoIA requests.

It seems to me obvious that campaigners like would mount exercises to test the FoIA out to see if, in practice, it delivers on the governments promises related to FoIA and that this is a legitimate exercise so long as it doesn't amount to an attempt to flood the govt with requests. Given that and the 4 year implementation period, failure of the government to adequately resource the security agencies and other departments to deal with FoIA requests would seem to me to be a failure of the government to implement the Act properly and responsibility would lie squarely with the government, not those making the requests.