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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

An urgent call to action!

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The No2ID campaign has established an e-petition aimed at 10 Downing Street demanding the end to plans for imposing mandatory ID cards and pervasive state databases recording a vast range of what you do in your life.

The No2ID campaigners have taken the line of principled objection, given that the government seem to have decided that there is no longer any room for public debate and refuses to engage with serious – and growing – civil liberty and privacy concerns with the scheme. The Home Office have not met once with civil liberties organisations yet say their concerns have been addressed whilst at the same time avoiding public meetings but at the same time having private briefing with technology partners for introducing the schemes.

Take a stand and make your voice heard while you still can at www.no2id-petition.net. Time is fast running out.

The state is not your friend.

All That Secrecy Is Expensive

During the 2003 fiscal year, the federal government spent more than $6.5 billion securing classified information, according to a new “Secrecy Report Card” from OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of government watchdog and civil liberties groups. That’s an increase of more than $800 million from the previous year, according to the group, and a nearly $2 billion jump since 2001. But it’s only a best guess, really; the report card’s accounting doesn’t include a penny from the Central Intelligence Agency, which keeps even its overall budget classified.

The big problem with having too many secrets isn’t that it’s a waste of money; it’s that it jeopardizes security, according to William Leonard. He’s the director of the ISOO, and, essentially, the man in charge of the government’s classification policies.

By keeping knowledgeable parties from sharing what they know, “secrecy guarantees a less-than-optimal outcome,” Leonard told Wired News. “In analyzing intelligence, in developing military plans, there’s a price that gets paid.”

That’s a view echoed by both the 9/11 Commission, in its final report (PDF), and several of the Defense Department’s top current and former spies.

Big Brother’s minion?

Mark Ellott has a thing or two to say about the Norwich Union’s pilot scheme for pay-as-you-drive motor insurance.

While we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society, the Norwich Union is egging us on… They are trialling a system of in-car monitoring (a black box by any other name) that records details of the vehicle’s journey. Where it went, how fast it travelled etc.

The box records real-time vehicle usage and sends the data to Norwich Union securely using mobile technology.

Each month or quarter, the motorist will receive a document similar to their mobile phone bill advising them of their journey details. Pay as you go insurance – sounds innocuous enough. During the BBC piece it was suggested that the monthly or quarterly bill may provide advice for improving the cost effectiveness of one’s driving (from an insurance point of view) by providing alternatives to the routes taken.

Even more worrying, perhaps is the quote from the Norwich Union director of the pay-as-you-drive scheme, Robert Ledger:

The interest in the pilot scheme has been phenomenal. We could have filled the pilot twice over with the amount of requests we’ve had from interested motorists, not just within the UK but from drivers around the world.

Sleepwalking indeed…

According to the BBC’s Breakfast programme, there is no clear indication yet about how the data will be stored, used and accessed – will the Norwich Union sell it? Will the police or other agencies have access to it? So far these are unanswered questions.

One motorist volunteer thinks this will give her control over her insurance costs. For a low mileage user, this may be so. For the rest of us? It is always worth remembering that insurance companies are not charities – they are investing in this because they see a revenue opportunity. Oh, how simple it all could be – analysing a driver’s record and declaring his insurance void due to, say driving several hours without a break or breaking the speed limit – or, just hiking the premium.

Personally, I prefer to control my insurance costs by playing them off against each other come renewal time.

Big Brother goes to the Olympics

New Scientist has an article looking at the US$312 million surveillance system installed for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The eyes and ears consist of 1,000 high-res and infrared videocameras peppering the city. Cell and landline telephone calls are being recorded, converted into text, and “scanned for phrases that could be linked to terrorist activity.” The software’s developers say it speaks Greek, English, Arabic, Farsi, and other major languages.

John Pike [a defence analyst] believes other undisclosed measures are undoubtedly in place, such as face recognition from video footage. He says such surveillance technology has already proven its worth in intelligence gathering. “They’re basically the sort of stuff the National Security Agency has been using for some time,” he told New Scientist. “And they seem to place great faith in it.”

via Boing Boing

We need the oxygen of publicity

It was with something akin to delight that I saw the Times, not a newspaper overly concerned with civil liberties, have on its front page* an article about objections to Britain’s developing surveillance state.

This is modern Britain

This is modern Britain

If we cannot get these issues out in the open, we will indeed see Britain ‘sleepwalking’ into what may some time in the future be a panoptic nightmare. Blair or Howard are not going to be having the security services doing ‘midnight knocks’ on the doors of those they disfavour (well, maybe for a few people in the Finsbury Park area) but make no mistake about it, the infrastructure of repression is being put in place at an astonishing rate and someday (hopefully long after I have decamped to New Hampshire) this information is going to be used by statists of both left and right with fewer qualms than Tony Blair to order every single aspect of people’s lives in Britain in ways that places the state at the centre of everything you do in ways earlier totalitarianisms could only dream of… for your own good, of course.

We have a serious battle to win and the more these issues are out of the committee rooms and in the more general public arena, the better we can argue the case for resisting the emerging Panopticon State.

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When the state watches you, dare to stare back

* = Readers outside the UK may have difficulties accessing this link once it is archived due to the benighted policies of the Times newspaper.

Beware rise of Big Brother state

The Times reports that Britain’s information watchdog gives warning today that the country risks “sleepwalking into a surveillance society” because of government plans for identity cards and a population register.

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, says that there is a growing danger of East German Stasi-style snooping if the State gathers too much information about individual citizens.

He singles out three projects that he believes are of particular concern. They are David Blunkett’s identity card scheme; a separate population register planned by the Office for National Statistics; and proposals for a database of every child from birth to the age of 18:

My anxiety is that we don’t sleepwalk into a surveillance society where much more information is collected about people, accessible to far more people shared across many more boundaries than British society would feel comfortable with.

Downing Street responded to warnings issued by Richard Thomas,
saying there would be a watchdog to prevent situations in which personal information gathered by one Whitehall department was made indiscriminately available to other civil servants without the individual’s knowledge.

We have made it clear that there are going to be guarantees about function creep. That is not what is going to happen. There is going to be proper oversight.

Oversight. Hm, so anyone trying to access the national database will be carefully monitored by CCTV and any other available surveillance technology. Phew, that really puts my mind to rest.

Also on BBC:
Watchdog’s Big Brother UK warning

Government is data obsessed

Computing is sceptical about about the government’s ID card proposals and its lurch to national database.

There is, however, a reason to be even more gloomy about government technology than the committee’s collection of mid-term backbenchers imply. The government – and particularly Home Secretary David Blunkett – have become dangerously obsessive about data-centric solutions to any social issue.

In the old days, political reaction to crime scares tended to be tough-sounding but often half-baked responses like boot camps. Now it’s to build a new database.

Computing deserves full marks for asking the right question:

Does the UK have the culture, the legislation or the infrastructure for such dramatic change? We think not.

Perhaps more importantly, there has been almost no debate about privacy, civil liberties, safeguards or security. Those who have been doing most of the shouting about IT government reform are obsessive techies.

The issue is not just whether the technology works – it’s why we are using it.

via Adam Smith Institute blog

They’ve got your number

The Montreal Gazette has a comprehensive article about how cutting-edge technologies work as tattle-tales for a surveillance-minded state containing warnings by Canadian privacy advocates. Stephanie Perrin, president of Digital Discretion in Montreal says:

There is a widening and yawning gap between the surveillance that is actually happening and people’s understanding for the capacity for surveillance. People just have no clue, and I’m describing intelligent people. At the very broad level, we have a society that thinks it’s democratic and absolutely has no concept of what the technology does.

Personal information often lies dormant in huge data banks that people contribute to constantly – through use of everyday items such as credit cards and telephones. Increasingly, corporate, government and law enforcement entities sift through that material with sophisticated data-mining programs, looking for relationships between individuals and whatever interests them.

Cellular telephones and vehicles can be tracked, too. The term telematics refers to any marriage of location-tracking technologies, such as global positioning systems, with wireless communications, such as cellphones. Applications include General Motors’ OnStar program. The Telematics Research Group estimates that by 2008, more than 40 per cent of new vehicles in the United States will have some form of telematics.

There is no question that law enforcement agencies have used tracking technology to solve crimes, possibly save lives. It’s all relative. Knowing exactly where employees are may be reasonable in a hazardous chemical plant but less reasonable in an insurance office.

Even though I’m a screaming privacy advocate, there is an argument on the other side for this stuff. That’s what makes it so difficult and so easy to give everything away.

There is more interesting (and frightening) stuff in the article such as Privacy Timeline: The Data Trail, read the whole thing.

There is a dilemma, I agree. But I disagree about it being a straightforward trade-off between security and privacy. When it comes to everyday technologies, one way to decide how to use a particular technology is what effect it has on the individual and how much power it gives to the state over that individual.

Privacy in Iceland

Bjarni Ólafsson of Great Auk draws our attention to an onslought on civil liberties by the Minister for Transportation, the Chief of Police in Reykjavík and the state “Traffic authority” have launched in the last two days. Böðvar Bragason, Chief of Police in Reykjavík muses:

New ways to cut the number of road accidents have to be found, and one possible way is to install computer chips in every car and thereby increase the amount of government monitoring of driving.

I want to propose an increase in the number of surveilance cameras on intersections in the city, but I also want a task force to inspect wether technology can be used in the cars themselves. I have the idea, which can easily be implemented, to put a computer chip in every single car. The Police then could stop a given car, connect with the chip and see the way the car has been driven that day, and even before that day.

Aarrrgh. We share your frustration, Bjarni.

The statist can never be happy as long as individuals have some modicum of freedom of action and travel, hence these proposals. This kind of surveilance system, coupled with a court system which allows for any and all evidence to be submitted in a criminal trial – without regard to how it was obtained (f.ex. illegal wiretaps are admissable), is a brutal attack on the personal liberties of Icelanders.

U.S. Nearing Deal on Way to Track Foreign Visitors

The Department of Homeland Security is on the verge of awarding the biggest contract in its young history for an elaborate system that could cost as much as $15 billion and employ a network of databases to track visitors to the United States long before they arrive.

The program, known as US-Visit and rooted partly in a Pentagon concept developed after the terrorist attacks of 2001, seeks to supplant the nation’s physical borders with what officials call virtual borders. Such borders employ networks of computer databases and biometric sensors for identification at sites abroad where people seek visas to the United States.

With a virtual border in place, the actual border guard will become the last point of defense, rather than the first, because each visitor will have already been screened using a global web of databases.

Visitors arriving at checkpoints, including those at the Mexican and Canadian borders, will face “real-time identification” — instantaneous authentication to confirm that they are who they say they are. American officials will, at least in theory, be able to track them inside the United States and determine if they leave the country on time.

Whoever wins the contract will be asked to develop a standard for identifying visitors using a variety of possible tools — from photographs and fingerprints, already used at some airports on a limited basis since January, to techniques like iris scanning, facial recognition and radio-frequency chips for reading passports or identifying vehicles.

Let’s hope that such a ‘high-concept’ plan will be above the ability of governments to organise such monumental projects. After all they say, hope springs eternal…

How secure is your data?

One of the problems with governments collecting and controlling data on individuals is their failure to secure this information. As a recent article in The Register demonstrated, the number of incidents involving computer systems in the civil service is high.

There are a number of serious concerns including inappropriate access of personal records, inappropriate alteration of personal records and their appropriation by a third party. This has been a problem for some time with Inland Revenue staff noted for “celebrity browsing” tax returns. These concerns are hidden within general figures for computer misuse that number up to two thousand. As these are the cases where such changes were noted and disciplinary action brought against the civil servant involved, it is impossible to gauge the seriousness if this problem.

Even after the data has been collected by the civil service agency, it is difficult to ensure that the information is accurate, secure and used only for the purposes required. This could be a minor problem or the tip of the iceberg.

Government IT must consider privacy, ethics

U.S. government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are being pitched many new technologies, but government technologists have an obligation to consider ethical and moral issues such as privacy when embracing new applications, concluded a panel of technology experts speaking at the FOSE government computing trade show.

AFFIRM (the Association for Federal Information Resources Management) plans to launch a Web site addressing technology and ethics within weeks and eventually issue a white paper on related topics.

Hastings and Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, questioned whether IT vendors can be expected to present the ethical issues when they pitch their products to government buyers. Sales people are not generally trained to address difficult ethical issues while trying to make a sale; they’re trained to tell potential customers what the customers want to hear, Paller said.

The panel also addressed several questions from the audience, largely of government employees. One question was:

What’s wrong with the statement, ‘If someone has nothing to hide, why shouldn’t we be able to take their biometric data?’

Reeder answered:

I would submit to you that none of you would tolerate routine invasion of your homes and searching of your personal possessions by a police force because you had nothing to hide.