We got a bit of freedom back

Today the Court of Human Rights ruled that section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (the broad police power for stop and search without suspicion) violates the right to respect for private life guaranteed by Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights.

In the case of Gillan and Quinton V the United Kingdom, the Court found that:

“…the powers of authorisation and confirmation as well as those of stop and search… are neither sufficiently circumscribed nor subject to adequate legal safeguards against abuse. ….They are not therefore “in accordance with the law”.”

The case arose from an arms fair in the Docklands area of East London in September 2003 where Pennie Quinton and Kevin Gillan (amongst many other journalists and peace protestors) were subject to lengthy stop and search and prevented from attending a demonstration. After public consternation and parliamentary questions, it emerged that the whole of Greater London had been secretly designated for stop and search without suspicion on a rolling basis since 2001.

via Liberty – Protecting Civil Liberties Promoting Human Rights : 12/01/10 Liberty wins landmark stop and search case in Court of Human Rights.

Should we be applauding the end of privacy?

I’ve become increasingly – many would say boringly – obsessed with the growth of the surveillance state: CCTV cameras, ID cards, national databases and the like. I still think these things are in many ways a very bad thing. But I wonder if there isn’t another perspective. Could it be argued that these are just symptoms of a more general cultural move towards a different attitude towards freedom, rights and openness.

There’s a number of items for discussion. The most recent is a story in the FT this morning about the OECD and UK government putting pressure on Liechtenstein to open up their bank vaults and force customers to voluntarily disclose information for tax purposes. One of the catalysts for this change was this:

The proposed purge of undeclared bank accounts by one of the world’s hitherto most secretive tax havens reflects pressure on Liechtenstein. Germany succeeded last year in uncovering tax evaders after buying stolen customer data from a former Liechtenstein bank employee.

In other words, the move from paper to digitised data has exposed Liechtenstein to the same dangers as we suffer as individuals: the larcenous acquisition of our data. But in this case the social outcome was positive (unless you’re a Liechtenstein banker, of course).

More generally, there’s a wider move to making data available: recent examples include the Guardian’s Data Store, and a new API for US economic data from the Federal Bank of St Louis. In both cases, what’s striking is how an individual entity can make data available which other data stakeholders might wish wasn’t opened out. For instance, a state federal bank can release economic data for the whole of the U.S. And once that data’s out, all the stakeholders in that data have their room for manoeuvre restricted, at least when it comes to restricting use. In the information power equation, the data stakeholders lose some power, and we gain some.

It’s important to note that the collapse in individual privacy, and the explosion in access to previously withheld data, are two sides of the same technological coin. Both stem from the ability to digitise data and then make it available on a network. CCTV and ID cards would make even less sense in an analogue world, while the Guardian’s Data Store would be frankly impossible.

So, there is a trade-off. Is the benefit we receive from a new cultural attitude to previously “secret” stuff greater than the potential injury to our individual liberty? For me, the jury is still out (I know, because I saw them leaving the building on CCTV). But as a last note, I’d refer people to what will now be known as the Alastair Campbell Edition of the New Statesman. There’s a thought-provoking piece in there by Conor Gearty, professor of law at the LSE. His thesis is that those complaining of civil liberties being “squeezed” are making several mistakes, including:

  • Assuming a “golden age” of individual liberty which doesn’t exist
  • Ignoring that laws are at least as much about quantifying what the State can do (instead of leaving it vague) as they are about extending its powers; and this is preferable to leaving the extent of the State’s powers to common law (which is that the “England’s golden Constitution” blowhards would prefer).
  • Ignoring the significant legal constructs for guaranteeing freedoms, including devolution, the Freedom of Information Act, the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act
  • Focussing on the downside of state interventions and not the upside: CCTV does prevent crime, DNA does solve it, for instance

I certainly don’t agree with everything that Gearty says, but I think it’s something worth saying. In our newly open, networked and interconnected world, we do need our rights codified. An ancient constitution and set of precedents will no longer cut it (ask anyone who’s had to deal with online libel issues). Everything is changing as a result of technology. And as such the end of our privacy is a symptom of cultural change stemming from technological development, and that change has massively positive elements as well as worryingly negative ones.

The Database State audit

It’s a rum old thing, is the Joseph Rowntree report into Britain’s database state. It’s clearly written, normally dispassionate, and rivetingly annoyed. It crystallises many of the anxieties many of us are feeling about the development of the country’s new surveillance-and-tracking society. But it occasionally cheapens this effort with a dose of overreach. For instance:

Stephen is fourteen and lives with his mum in Nottingham. He is listed on all the big databases that every youngster is on nowadays: ContactPoint gives links to all the public services he has used; the NHS Care Record Service has his medical records; the National Pupil Database has his school attendance, disciplinary history and test results; he is on the Child Benefits Database, and also on the National Identity Register since he applied for a passport; the Government Gateway has a record of all his online interactions with public services; and the ITSO smartcard he uses for local bus services and discount rail fares has been tracking him ever since his mum refilled it with her bank card. His mother frets about all this – when she was a teenager in the 1980s, things like medical and school records were all kept on paper.

And although the family has always kept its phone number ex-directory and always ticks the ‘no information’ box, they get ever more junk mail. More and more of it is for Stephen.

Like millions of children, he is on a few more databases besides. After an operation to remove a bone tumour, he needed an orthopaedic brace for two years, which brought him into the social care system. As his teachers could see from ContactPoint that he was known to social workers, they expected less of him, and he started doing less well at school. The social care system also led to his being scanned for ONSET, a Home Office system that tries to predict which children will become offenders. The Police National Database told ONSET that Stephen’s father – who left home when he was two and whom he does not remember – had spent six months in prison for fraud, so the computer decided that Stephen was likely to offend.

When he was with some other youths who got in a fight, the police treated him as a suspect rather than a witness, and he got cautioned for affray. Ten years later, after he thought he had put all this behind him and completed an MSc in vehicle testing technology, Stephen finds that the government’s new Extended Background Screening programme picked up his youthful indiscretion and he can not get the job he had hoped for at the Department of Transport. He tries to get jobs in the private sector, but the companies almost all find excuses to demand EBS checks. Two did not, but one of them picked up the fact that he had been treated for cancer; all cancer data is passed to cancer registries whether the patient likes it or not, and made available to all sorts of people and firms for research. Given the decline in the NHS since computerisation, most decent employers offer generous private health insurance – so they are not too keen to hire people who have had serious illnesses.

That’s a powerful story, but it’s somewhat cheapened by the uncited asides like “given the decline in the NHS since computerisation.” This just gives politicians a way to discredit the report in its entirety, as was done (rather shockingly) by the ministerial drone who was sent out to knock the report down on Today this morning.

On the other hand, there’s also some fascinating insight into how gridlocked ministerial and civil service thinking is on this stuff. For instance:

There is a sense in the senior civil service and among politicians that the personal data issue is now career-threatening and toxic. No-one who values their career wants to get involved with it. This is irresponsible and short-sighted. Like Chernobyl, the database state has been a disaster waiting to happen. When it goes wrong, some brave souls need to go in and sort it out while others plan better ways to manage things in the longer term.

That rings rather true, doesn’t it?

Lords *finally* have something to say on freedom

The peers say Britain has constructed one of the most extensive and technologically advanced surveillance systems in the world in the name of combating terrorism and crime and improving administrative efficiency.

The report, Surveillance: Citizens and the State, by the Lords’ constitution committee, says Britain leads the world in the use of CCTV, with an estimated 4m cameras, and in building a national DNA database, with more than 7% of the population already logged compared with 0.5% in the America.

The cross-party committee which includes Lord Woolf, a former lord chief justice, and two former attorneys general, Lord Morris and Lord Lyell, warns that “pervasive and routine” electronic surveillance and the collection and processing of personal information is almost taken for granted.

Finally, a group in government says something definitive about privacy and the surveillance state. It’s a start.

I posted this via web and the content originally came from Lloyd’s posterous

Faces in the crowd

There’s rather an extraordinary story over on the Telegraph about a police investigation into verbal abuse suffered by Sol Campbell by away supporters from Spurs at Fratton Park in September. The investigation is certainly welcome, if reports of the nature of the abuse are anything to go by, but what strikes me about the story is that the police have released 16 very clear CCTV images of people they want to talk to. The clear assumption is that these 16 white men (yes, of course they’re all white men) are filthy racist homophobes.

Now, last time I looked, CCTV didn’t include an audio feed. It also didn’t include lipsynching, though I could be wrong. So if you happened to be in among those fans singing a song at the same time as they were singing the crap they were singing, wouldn’t the fickle finger of surveillance Britain point at you?

Really, the pictures are very clear – I’m not going to reproduce them here, as that would make me a hypocrite. And I certainly believe that people shouting this kind of thing should be barred from football grounds for the comfort and sanity of all of us. But to have their photos splashed over a national newspaper website, with no evidence other than a CCTV shot? If I were a lawyer, I’d be offering my services on this one.

An essential poem

I’ve been reading Andrew Marr’s A History of Modern Britain, which I recommend wholeheartedly, and apart from reflecting on how much harder politics was in the aftermath of the War than it is now (devaluation, Rhodesia, Vietnam, borrowing money, strikes, inflation – all in 1968) I also wondered what happened to the censoriat – the army of small-minded self-appointed “public servants” who attempted to keep the intelligent and the daring at bay with their blue pencils and narrow horizons.

I’ll tell you what happened to them. They became “external examiners.” Step forward Pat Schofield, whose complaint about a Carol Ann Duffy poem and its supposed glorification of knife crime led to the poem being withdrawn from the English syllabus. Duffy’s response, titled Mrs Schofield’s GCSE, has a poetry which Mrs Schofield will never be able to understand:

You must prepare your bosom for his knife,

said Portia to Antonio in which

of Shakespeare’s Comedies? Who killed his wife,

insane with jealousy? And which Scots witch

knew Something wicked this way comes? Who said

Is this a dagger which I see? Which Tragedy?

Whose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt’s death?

To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu? And why?

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark – do you

know what this means? Explain how poetry

pursues the human like the smitten moon

above the weeping, laughing earth; how we

make prayers of it. Nothing will come of nothing:

speak again. Said by which King? You may begin.

And indeed, Mrs Schofield finds that rather hard:

Contacted by the Guardian last night, Schofield said she felt “a bit gobsmacked” to have a verse named after her. She described the poem as “a bit weird. But having read her other poems I found they were all a little bit weird. But that’s me”.

Yes, Mrs Schofield, that’s you. You’re an idiot.

Organising in a fragmented world

Does the Internet make campaigning easier or harder?

In some ways, that’s a stupid question. Of course it makes it easier. The Internet has demolished distances between individuals and provided a suite of publishing and communication tools. If the Internet were only email, it would transform campaigning. And it’s so much more than email.

Also, the Internet is an auto-archive. It remembers (or at least, it can remember) what’s been submitted to it, and an audit trail comes out of the box (unless, of course, someone deletes the wrong combination of servers at some point in a comedy scifi future).

But the Internet also makes campaigning more difficult, because it removes focus. Before the Internet, when media outlets were few and closely held, focus was easy. It was a primetime television show, or a newspaper leader, or a magazine cover. Mass audiences were mobilised around relatively few loci. We still see echoes of this: almost 40 million Americans watched Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. But those shared mass moments are few and far between.

As a counter-example to Obama, let’s look at the way the UK’s Freedom of Information Act is being used as a campaign tool. And right away we see the problem: a lot of very excellent pieces, very loosely joined. Over here, we have the excellent SpyBlog, where they’re attempting to secure a list of places it’s forbidden to take photographs in Britain from the Ministry of Justice. Over there, the amazing WhatDoTheyKnow, which you can use to submit an FOI request and then track it. Channel 4 News has its own Freedom Files. And no doubt there are many others.

The problem here is that it’s relatively easy to set up a new FOI locus – it could be as simple as sending in a request and then launching a free WordPress blog to do something about it. The point is that each additional effort of this type weakens the existing efforts unless there is some kind of glue to bring it all together, another locus to focus efforts. It’s a kind of reverse network effect. How do I choose which of these efforts to follow? And where do I go if I want to follow all of them? I could set up a bunch of RSS feeds, or fiddle with Yahoo! Pipes, but what self-respecting non-geek with a life is going to do that?

What we need is some central organisation – perhaps a state-owned broadcaster – that can index these things in a common format, and then present them back to a mass audience in a single location. Hmmm. Anyone know of any such thing?


The response from the Minister of Justice to SpyBlog is worth repeating, in part, here. It’s prime Appleby:

However, it will not be possible to provide you with this information within the appropriate limit set out in section 12(1) of the Freedom of Information Act. Section 12 of the Act makes provision for public authorities to refuse requests for information where the cost of dealing with them would exceed the appropriate limit, which is set at £600 for central Government. The limit represents the estimated cost of one person spending 3½ working days locating, retrieving, and extracting the information. Your request is therefore refused under section 12 (1) of the FOI Act.

If you were to refine your request, for example by specifying a narrower time frame, or listing which orders you are especially interested in, we would be happy to reconsider your request.

I should point out that some of the information you request is also covered by further exemptions, in particular section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act, in that Orders made under the Official Secrets Act are accessible on the Office of Public Sector Information website (www.opsi.gov.uk) and/or the Statute Law Database (www.statutelaw.gov.uk).

In addition, some of the information you request falls within the area of responsibility of other Government Departments. The Communications Act 2003 is the responsibility of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Civil Aviation Act 2001 is the responsibility of the Department for Transport.