Talk to Parliamentary Committee

I’ve been invited back to the British Parliament (yes, I know – I’m surprised they keep asking me back too!). This time it is to address a meeting of the Parliamentary & Scientific Committee on the subject of “Security Technology and Individual Freedom” in April, just after I get back from Brazil.

Is there anything anyone wants me to tell them? 😉

Some things are just wrong

It is disturbing that… the default position for state officials seems to be that surveillance is a normal, even required part of everyday life.

Ok, there are some things about surveillance that are arguable, some things that are good, but some things are just wrong.

The Guardian today is reporting the story of Nick Gibson who is taking over the tenancy of a pub in Islington in north London. The police have insisted that he will not receive the licence he needs to run the pub unless he installs CCTV and is prepared to hand over footage to them whenever they want. Mr Gibson complained to his Member of Parliament, Emily Thornberry (not Thornhill as The Guardian claims), but she is apparently a spineless New Labour loyalist who has no time for niceties like civil liberties. She refused to represent him on the grounds that other local residents ‘want more CCTV’.

It is one thing to want to install CCTV if you run a business. Your customers can chose whether to patronise your establishment or not. It is however, entirely another matter to be quasi-legally blackmailed into installing it by police. There is no law that mandate the installation of surveillance cameras an in fact there is no statutory basis for CCTV at all in the UK – it is something that the Lords committee report on surveillance recommended as a matter of urgency. The police are simply abusing their right to impose licensing conditions to make local policy. The installation of CCTV is not a matter of ‘common-sense’, it is an ethical judgement, and police should not be be able to override the ethical judgement of individuals by edict in this way.

This is a very worrying case, because it shows that there is a kind of cozy ‘common-sense’ authoritarianism developing in the UK. It is disturbing that despite all the research, including that of the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers, showing that CCTV has very limited utility, the default position for state officials seems to be that surveillance is a normal, even required part of everyday life.

UK travel database

Lots of media outlets today and yesterday reporting on the UK government’s e-Borders initiative. I’m not quite sure why particularly now: we’ve known about the e-Borders program – which is based around the new RFID-chipped passports – for some time. Of course the system involves collecting vast amounts of data, including rather more personal information than seems in any way necessary, like for example, travel companions – as if terrorists and criminals will obediently identify themselves by booking and traveling together!

For that is the justification for all this. On the website, Phil Woolas, the Minister of State for Borders and Immigration – another barrel-scraping appointment by a government that doesn’t really have many options for ministers now – said that this is is just about allowing ‘us to count all passengers in and out of the UK.’  But this isn’t just counting. What was a system derived in a combination of bowing to US demands after 9/11 and embarrassment over the government’s total inability to counter opposition criticism over immigration with any real facts has expanded its functionality (as with all of these systems) into something rather more comprehensive.

Woolas goes on to say that it ‘targets those who aren’t willing to play by our rules’ – tough talk, but it with the ever increasing numbers of trivial, silly and sometimes plain bad rules introduced by the current government, it’s hard to know what playing by the rules means anymore. This is a major problem for those who just accept all of this with a shrug and argue ‘nothing to hide nothing to fear’. I also wonder how long it will be before this database is hacked or details get left on a train or the whole thing is ‘lost’. Maybe I will start paying attention to Phil Woolas’s idea of the rules when his government starts paying attention to the European Convention on Human Rights, introduces some proper accountability and oversight for all these new surveillance initiatives as the House or Lords recommended, and stops losing our data and pandering to fear. Accountability, competence, ethics and rationality: it’s not much to ask from a government is it?

Digital Britain to be just like Digital Brazil?

There has been a serious global push for several years now by corporate content creators to hobble the Internet, and turn it into something more like television.

Time to catch up on a story that I missed this week. Boingboing reported the release of the UK government’s consultation document on Digital Britain. I had a eerie feeling of deja vu because the proposals are just like parts of Senator Azeredo’s bill that is halfway through the legislative process here in Brazil. Effectively it regards the Internet as some kind of untamed zone which must be brought under state control through a Rights Agency and ISPs acting increasingly as surveillance agents over the activities of their users, in this case particularly with regard to file-sharing.

The similarity is not surprising. There has been a serious global push for several years now by corporate content creators to hobble the Internet, and turn it into something more like television. The fact that the Digital Britain plan is filed under ‘broadcasting’ on the government’s website says quite a lot about the lack of tech savvy of state regulators in this area. What governments, in listening only to the corporate argument, don’t appear to realise is that we are actually collectively and autonomously coming up with better ways of ‘regulation’ of content through initiatives like Creative Commons and so on.

As in Brazil, where a serious netizen counter-plan is now emerging, with parliamentary support, there needs to be some serious organisation in Britain to present the alternatives to destroying the Internet and all is messy, unruly creativity. The Open Rights Group are trying to do this – let’s get behind them and make this more than just a few tech-savvy usual suspects.