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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.

Blunkett raises spectre of fingerprinting entire EU population!

Mentioned en passant in another alarming article in which David Blunkett threatens yet further abridgements of civil liberties under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism’, it is noted he and the European Commission advocated the idea of…

Joining forces with the Commission, Mr Blunkett backed proposals for a fingerprint data base of all EU citizens and tougher measures to tackle terrorist funding.

Oh wonderful.

An expensive piece of research

This is a great piece. Since I have no idea whether it will remain internet-readable, and since I think it should for all eternity, here is all of it:

RFID Tags in New US Notes Explode When You Try to Microwave Them

Adapted from a letter sent to Henry Makow Ph.D.

Want to share an event with you, that we experienced this evening.. Dave had over $1000 dollars in his back pocket (in his wallet). New twenties were the lion share of the bills in his wallet. We walked into a truck stop/travel plaza and they have those new electronic monitors that are supposed to say if you are stealing something. But through every monitor, Dave set it off. He did not have anything to purchase in his hands or pockets. After numerous times of setting off these monitors, a person approached Dave with a ‘wand’ to swipe why he was setting off the monitors.

Believe it or not, it was his ‘wallet’. That is according to the minimum wage employees working at the truck stop! We then walked across the street to a store and purchased aluminum foil. We then wrapped our cash in foil and went thru the same monitors. No monitor went off.

We could have left it at that, but we have also paid attention to the European Union and the ‘rfid’ tracking devices placed in their money, and the blatant bragging of Walmart and many corporations of using ‘rfid’ electronics on every marketable item by the year 2005.

Dave and I have brainstormed the fact that most items can be ‘microwaved’ to fry the ‘rfid’ chip, thus elimination of tracking by our government.

So we chose to ‘microwave’ our cash, over $1000 in twenties in a stack, not spread out on a carasoul. Do you know what exploded on American money?? The right eye of Andrew Jackson on the new twenty, every bill was uniform in it’s burning… Isnt that interesting?

Now we have to take all of our bills to the bank and have them replaced, cause they are now ‘burnt’.

We will now be wrapping all of our larger bills in foil on a regular basis.

What we resent is the fact that the government or a corporation can track our ‘cash’. Credit purchases and check purchases have been tracked for years, but cash was not traceble until now …

Dave and Denise

Well said Dave and Denise, and well done. And dont you listen to all tho’s other people, your great at grammar and spelln and punctuationising. And thank you Dave Barry for the link to the story. Well, I think it must have been him, but I can find no mention of this story there. So how did I find out about this? (Update Wed 4: I remember now. All is explained here. So the link was via Dave Barry, but only via something else.)

Anyway, apologies if this has already been covered here. I’ve just realised that I haven’t checked. Also, I have no idea at all when this originally got written. It could have been years ago for all I know. I did a posting on Ubersportingpundit about a rugby player who was tackling people by sticking his hand up his opponents’ bottoms (true), and it turned out the story was about three years old. Imagine how embarrassed I was about that.


90% crud has an excellent post about government, security and privacy. He includes a quote by Bruce Schnier about central databases and data mining programmes from his article How we are fighting the war on terrorism/IDs and the illusion of security.

But any such system will create a third, and very dangerous, category: evildoers who don’t fit the profile. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Washington-area sniper John Allen Muhammed and many of the Sept. 11 terrorists had no previous links to terrorism. The Unabomber taught mathematics at UC Berkeley. The Palestinians have demonstrated that they can recruit suicide bombers with no previous record of anti-Israeli activities. Even the Sept. 11 hijackers went out of their way to establish a normal-looking profile; frequent-flier numbers, a history of first-class travel and so on. Evildoers can also engage in identity theft, and steal the identity — and profile — of an honest person. Profiling can result in less security by giving certain people an easy way to skirt security.

There’s another, even more dangerous, failure mode for these systems: honest people who fit the evildoer profile. Because evildoers are so rare, almost everyone who fits the profile will turn out to be a false alarm. This not only wastes investigative resources that might be better spent elsewhere, but it causes grave harm to those innocents who fit the profile. Whether it’s something as simple as “driving while black” or “flying while Arab,” or something more complicated such as taking scuba lessons or protesting the Bush administration, profiling harms society because it causes us all to live in fear…not from the evildoers, but from the police.

The rest of the post is equally sound:

The problem with these data mining programs is that they don’t work. There simply isn’t enough data to build a good terrorist model. Let’s take two recent American terrorists: John Allen Muhammad and Timothy McVeigh. What did their records have in common before they acted? The only common data point between the two is that they both served in the military. If we had a system that could spot these two men, it would also falsely identify every single male who served in the US Military.

That of course assumes that the data is properly mined and analyzed. But let’s go back to the initial story, where we find out that the TSA sucks at analyzing data. Where does that leave us?

Some might say finding an evil-doer among regular people is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. I say that since there’s no way to tell the bad from the good it’s closer to finding a specific needle in a needlestack. Is that really worth giving up our privacy for an illusion of security?

E-ZPass used for surveillance by various organisations in the US

There are a substantial number of toll roads and bridges in the north-east of the United States. There are very few in the west. The difference largely stems from the fact that the east built a large portion of its road infrastructure prior to the federal government getting into road building in a big way subsequently to the second world war, and in the east roads and bridges were built and belong to a wide assortment of state governments, city and county governments, peculiar specially constituted government authorities, and the like, which often charge tolls, whereas most roads in the west were built with federal government money and tolls are not collected.

Traditionally, the toll roads in the east have collected tolls using the low tech method of collecting cash at toll gates. As well as being expensive to operate, this method negates many of the benefits of having modern, fast moving highways, because motorists must stop to pay the toll, and at peak hours must often queue for some time in order to pay the toll. For this reason, there has been considerable pressure to introduce electronic methods for toll payment. If a motorist has an electronic tag in the front of his car that can be detected electronically even if he is driving at speed, then it is not necessary to stop. The driver can drive straight through and gain the full benefits of the road, and the toll collection agency does not have to employ people to collect the toll or deal with large amounts of cash. (It also allows the toll to be easily varied depending on time of day or day of the week, which allows intelligent traffic management on the road).

It is obviously best if a single tag will operate all toll roads that a motorist is likely to want to drive on, so in recent years fifteen toll collecting agencies in the US North East have standardised on a single system, called E-ZPass. Normally some lanes of the road going through the tollgates will continue to allow cash tolls to be paid, whereas others will be reserved for electronic E-ZPass users.

Now, the benefits to both motorists and the road owners of such a system are considerable. But there are also privacy implications. If you use such a system, records exist of where you drove to and when. Security of these records was not been considered to be of paramount importance when the system was invented, and data is shared between 15 different governments and agencies even before the possibility of data going to other organisations is considered. But, if data exists, people will try to use it for other purposes, and this is what is happening.

This article describes how in a considerable number of cases police have managed to sepoena E-ZPass records to help in solving crimes, often in cases where people have claimed to be in one place but the records have revealed their car to be in another. → Continue reading: E-ZPass used for surveillance by various organisations in the US

Villagers given speed guns to trap motorists

The Telegraph has an article about a roadside watch by local volunteers under fire.

Volunteers from villages, known as “speed watchers”, will use the devices at the roadside to identify speeding motorists before passing the information to the police. A senior police officer said the three-month pilot scheme at Milton of Campsie, near Glasgow, was a “local solution to a local problem”.

But motoring organisations, civil liberties groups and lawyers have criticised the idea on the grounds that there could be difficulties in providing acceptable evidence in court and that the system could be abused by people involved in disputes.

Well, it is a busybodies’ license to interefere further in people’s lives. When someone with attitudes such as Patrick Friel, the first person to be offered a speed camera, volunteers to ‘police local community’, I know the police are pandering to those with worst social instincts.

Everyone I’ve spoken to supports the use of the camera because something has to be done about speeding drivers.

Yes, and the way to do this is to help government impose more constraints on our daily lives.

Once they’ve got our number …

From last Friday’s Guardian:

Charles Clarke, the education secretary, is fighting for a short bill in the Queen’s speech next month which would give every child an identity number and allow local authorities in England to share information about any suspicion of neglect or abuse in the family.

The bill would be the first instalment of the government’s plans to reform child protection after a public inquiry into the murder of Victoria Climbié.

Which nicely illustrates the connection between state “protection” and state numbering of its human possessions.

What is objectionable, I think, is the idea that all children, the overwhelming majority of whom are not suspected of being abused, will nevertheless get numbered. Is that really necessary?

Plus, you can’t help wondering if, after a brief interval while we all get used to this process, children who have got their numbers will start not to shed them, even when they’ve stopped being children. After all, it isn’t only children who need protecting, is it?