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Needlestack

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?

More on mobile phones as tracking devices

Every now and then somebody writes a piece (such as the one Brian referred to the other day) which talks about “Some pestilential scientist has invented a device that allows parents to trace their child’s location via his mobile telephone” or similar.

Now it actually isn’t actually scientific or technical issues that are the issue here, for mobile phones are tracking devices by their very nature, and have been since their invention. You see, if you call a mobile phone, then the phone has to be made to ring. In order to be able to make it ring, the network as to know where it is. And in order that this be so, your mobile phone network is tracking you at all times. It isn’t tracking you that precisely, but with sharing of information between networks (which they do, in order to track down mobile phones and sometimes to cooperate with the police) it is possible to track the location of anyone with a mobile phone to within a couple of street blocks. In terms of tracking the person with the phone, although the technology can be improved to track movements more accurately – particularly by putting GPS devices or similar into phones, in some sense it is good enough already. In this case the issues are not so much technological – the technology is already there – but regulatory and legal. Just how much of this information will be logged and stored. Having a database recording everywhere I have been in the last five years is different from being able to record where I am now on demand. How much of this information may or must be shared with government and law enforcement. And how much of this information may be used commercially and in what ways. Is it appropriate to provide a service to parents that allows them to track the movements of their children? (Certainly if I was a teenager, I would find it pretty rough if my mother was tracking me at all times).

But, of course, technology is advancing. Reading this article suggests that things are going to get far worse. Before too long we may have so called “passive radar”. Essentially the point of this is that our mobile phones are throwing lots and lots of radio signals around all the time. These signals are bouncing off things, being partially absorbed by other objects, and similar. If our phones and base-stations record signal strength, signal direction, gaps in the signal, doppler effects, and other such pieces of information, it may be possible to essentially construct an electronic map of the terrain that the signals are travelling through. Essentially if you are walking down the street not carrying a mobile phone or any form of electronic tag, it may be possible to track you using the mobile phones of other people in the street. Unlike conventional radar systems, this type of tracking cannot easily be detected, as it uses radio signals that have other purposes and are there already. The privacy implications of this are, of course, worrying.

Even if this particular means of ubiquitous tracking does not come into being, or at least not quickly, some technology that achieves essentially the same thing is going to come into being at some point, like it or not. If we want to attempt to establish rights to not be tracked, or clear laws as to how such information can and cannot be used, we need to do so now, when tracking is possible but not ubiquitous. Trying to do so so after it becomes ubiquitous is going to be too late.

Wherever you go, whatever you do

There are several disturbing features of this panoptican state in which we will soon be living not the least of which is the sheer breakneck pace of its assembly.

It seems like only yesterday that speed cameras suddenly appeared on every lamppost but even they are so much old hat now:

Automatic Number Plate Recognition systems are set to be deployed by police forces throughout the UK as a major plank of a campaign of “denying criminals the use of the roads.” The system will link up to the DVLA, Police National Computer and a National Insurance Database, with these links alone giving it the capability of identifying untaxed, unroadworthy and uninsured vehicles, but they’ll also facilitate police surveillance operations, the swapping of data on “prolific offenders” between forces and, well, other stuff… Take this, for instance:

“Eventually the database will link to most CCTV systems in town centres, meaning that all vehicles filmed on one of the many cameras protecting Bedford High Street, for instance, can be checked against the database and the movements of wanted cars traced to help with serious crime investigations.”

As far as the drivers are concerned, well, that just about wraps it up, folks.

But truly one hardly has time to digest one horror before the next one comes galloping over the horizon. Dr.Sean Gabb has suggested that our rulers our ‘drunk with the technology’ but I am not so sure. More like they are stone-cold sober and determined to get the whole country locked down before the public realises exactly what has been done to them.

Depth of information

What does the government know about you? – that’s the title of a piece that starts with this:

WASHINGTON, DC and DALLAS,TX — (MARKET WIRE) — Carl Caldwell, the president of Right-to-Know, released a statement explaining the depth of information that the government collects about its citizens. Right- to-Know helps its clients uncover what the government knows about them.

Here‘s the rest of it.

No cure for cancer

It’s like a cancer that we can battle against but never truly defeat. As it creeps purposefully through our national lymph system some of us can summon up the courage to fight it back and, for a while, it can appear as if we are in remission. But then comes the hoping and the praying for the final ‘all clear’ that signals a rebirth and a new lease of disease-free life.

It never comes. The cells are corrupted again and the cancer returns to devour us:

Sweeping powers for Government agencies to carry out covert surveillance, run agents and gather the telephone data of private citizens were contained in legislation published yesterday.

State bodies ranging from the police, intelligence services and Whitehall departments to local councils, the Postal Services Commission and the chief inspector of schools will be able to authorise undercover operations.

The measures were activated by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, under the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which became law three years ago. They need to be approved again by both Houses of Parliament before they can be used.

These horrors first made their appearance about a year ago and set off a call-to-arms that, in turn, caused the Home Office to drop the proposals. Or, at least, they made an appearance of dropping them because, like that lurking cancer, they never really went away. They were merely stacked neatly in the pending trays until an another opportune moment presented itself. Seems that the moment is now.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said the British people were “the most spied upon in the Western world”.

I reckon that’s a pretty fair prognosis. But why? Why are our political elites so determined to construct this panopticon? Why are they so single-minded about this project that they appear immune to sweet reason, protest or appeals to decency? What exactly is driving them? Are they so riddled with paranoia and insecurity that they see monsters and assassins lurking behind every curtain? Is that how they see us? I cannot think of any other reason why a democratically elected government would come to think of themselves as colonial occupiers of their own country.

What has led to this calamitous collapse of trust? Is it repairable? I rather fear that it is not.

Questions, questions. Answers may come in due course but I suspect none will be satisfactory or stop the cancer from spreading. Time for palliative surgery?

[This has been cross-posted from Samizdata.]

The European Space Agency is watching your car

This is just what we need.


The European Space Agency (ESA) is funding Irish provider of location technology products Mapflow to undertake a feasibility study to look into the possibility of implementing a pan-European road tolling system. The research aims to establish whether satellite technology can be used to calculate the cost of motoring.
A plan exists to complement this activity with a real demonstration of the virtual tolling concept in the greater area of Lisbon. Also under ESA funding, the project is being conducted by the Portuguese company Skysoft in close cooperation with the Portuguese motorway authority. The demonstration is planned for the end of 2004.

In April this year the European Commission published a proposal that all vehicles should pay road tolls electronically, with full implementation foreseen for 2010. Under the proposal, all vehicles will carry a ‘black box’, which will be tracked by satellites relaying information on the distance travelled by the vehicle, the class of road travelled and the time at which the journey was made.

Germany recently received EU approval to implement a new tolling system for goods vehicles. The system – currently being tested – uses the US-operated Global Positioning System (GPS). The government hopes to raise 650 million euros a year through the new charges.

Satellite-assisted tolling would make use of Galileo, Europe’s planned satellite navigation system. Galileo is a joint initiative between the European Commission and ESA to develop a global navigation system, scheduled to be operational by 2008.

I am actually in favour of charging for road use on a per kilometre basis. Inevitably this means using electronic tolling devices of some sort (and from a traffic management point of view this is desirable, as people do not have to stop to pay tolls, and also it is possible to manage congestion better by being able to vary tolls depending on time of day and traffic conditions). Equally inevitably this has privacy consequences.

However, having a top down approach in which a centralised EU agency moniters the movement of every car in Europe strikes me as terrifying. (Also, the further you remove the charging scheme from the people who are building and operating the roads, the less it becomes a charge for road use and the more it becomes a simple tax, too. A Europe wide charging scheme is about the worst way of doing it I can think of. What is much more desirable is a bottom up approach in which the individual owners of the roads implement their own systems, and from which they negotiate technology compatibility and a clearing house for sharing charges between themselves. Governments may still get their hands on the data, but a situation where it starts out in the private sectory and possibly works its way up is far better than a situation where everything starts in the hands of the EU and then works its way down.

This trial is perhaps partly a consequence of the fact that the EU has decided that Europe will build “Galileo”: its own alternative to the American GPS system. Having decided this, it needs to find uses for it. And if you are the EU, tracking Europeans at all times is the sort of thing that comes to mind.

(Link via slashdot)

Crossposted from Transport Blog

Big Brother may not be watching you, but the BBC is.

Stephen Lewis of the Sterling Times message board sent this link.

Follow it, please. Now would be a good time.

Mr Lewis has found a report on the Radio Nederlands website stating that the BBC, the BBC, is to monitor message boards for hate speech on behalf of the authorities.

Once upon a time the only official way your home could be searched was by a policeman backed by a warrant issued by the courts. OK, as a libertarian I could raise certain objections even to that, but it was the evolved and generally agreed custom of my country and that counts for a lot. Then the privilege of search spread first to customs officers and then to tax-gatherers, until now practically any parasite of a an environmental health officer or social worker can walk in.

Count on it. The same process is happening with restrictions of freedom of speech. Fifty years ago the legal right to impose restrictions was the preserve of the courts. Many of the restrictions were ridiculous: the Lord Chamberlain censored naughty bits out of stage plays until as late as 1968. However, in terms of political speech, freedom fifty years ago was greater than freedom now. Speakers in Hyde Park Corner could and did call for the gutters of Mayfair to run red with the blood of the rich and the copper would just say, “steady on mate, steady on.” Part of the reason for this freedom was that the right to restrict was itself restricted to the justice system.

It’s a sign of a half-way healthy state (half-way being about as good as states get) that it is very clear who is doing the state’s dirty work.

Now, it seems, the job of spying on British citizens has been franchised out to that “much loved” institution, the BBC. As Mr Lewis says, that is not their role. Later on in the post some Radio Nederlands commentary is quoted saying that it might be better to have “trained journalists” doing the monitoring than others. Not surprising, I suppose, that the trained journalists at Radio Nederlands rate their fellow trained journalists at the BBC as the best people to employ for this task. I must disagree: if I had to choose I’d rather be spied on by professional spies. At least they live in the real world, and in particular have the peril of Islamofascism very much in the forefront of their minds. I’d trust them way above the BBC to be able to tell the difference between clear statements warning against Islamofascism and genuine hate speech.*

When it comes to judging others – judging us here, for instance – the BBC is very likely to imply that anyone who says out loud that a kind of death-cult has infected to some degree a disturbingly high proportion of the Muslim world is thereby an Islamophobe.

But when it comes to judging themselves, or judging the groups they have a soft spot for, the standard is very different. You can see the double standard in operation by the BBC’s choice of Jew-hating ranter Mahathir as official BBC “expert” on Islam for an upcoming forum. (See Biased BBC here and passim.) Tell you what, Beeb guys, if you want to monitor “hate speech” why don’t you start with him?

*I do not make this distinction between real and apparent hate speech in order to say we should forbid one and allow the other. I am a free speech absolutist. That means I must support the political right to make truly hateful hate speech, however vile, while also asserting my right to condemn it. This includes hate speech about Muslims and hate speech by Muslims. But the distinction between real and apparent hate speech is crucial in terms of moral assessment and national security.

USNews on mobile phones and other tracking devices

US News and World Report has an article that is well worth reading on how mobile phones are being used as tracking devices for all sorts of purposes, as well as how other consumer devices are also slowly evolving into tracking devices.

The car’s the star

In more traditional police-states, citizens may be blissfully unaware that they have done wrong until they are woken in the wee small hours by an ominous rapping on their front doors. In modern police-state Britain, the knock on the door is to be replaced by the thud on the doormat.

If this report from the UK Times is accurate (and it is just about creepy enough to be true) then it may be time to think about buying a bicycle:

EVEN George Orwell would have choked. Government officials are drawing up plans to fit all cars in Britain with a personalised microchip so that rule-breaking motorists can be prosecuted by computer.

Dubbed the “Spy in the Dashboard” and “the Informer” the chip will automatically report a wide range of offences including speeding, road tax evasion and illegal parking. The first you will know about it is when a summons or a fine lands on your doormat.

The plan, which is being devised by the government, police and other enforcement agencies, would see all private cars monitored by roadside sensors wherever they travelled.

Who the bloody hell are the ‘other enforcement agencies’? And the very notion of an informer in every vehicle! Saddam Hussein could only dream about that level of control.

Police working on the “car-tagging” scheme say it would also help to slash car theft and even drug smuggling.

The same old, same old. Every accursed and intrusive state abuse is sold to the public as a cure for crime and ‘drug-dealing’. The fact that it still works is proof that we live in the Age of Bovine Stupidity. A media advertising campaign showing seedy drug-dealers and leering child-molesters being rounded up as a result of this technology will have the public begging for a ‘spy in the dashboard’.

Having already expressed my doubts about the viability of new government schemes here I should add that the fact that this relies on technology rather than human agency means it just might.

The next step is an electronic device in your car which will immediately detetct any infringement of any regulation, then lock the doors, drive you to a football stadium and shoot you. HMG is reported to be very interested and is launching a feasibility study.

[This item has been cross-posted on Samizdata.]