Act now to protect Data Protection

Protecting your bits. Open Rights Group

The Open Rights Group, of which I am a founder member, has announced a call to action to try and prevent the inclusion of Clause 152 in the Coroners and Justice Bill, due to go before Parliament in the near future.

This clause, should it become law, will essentially remove the protections we enjoy under the Data Protection Act and allow Government to mandate the sharing of your personal data with no effective oversight.

This means that data you have provided to the Government for one purpose, with a guarantee under law that it would be used soley for that purpose, would be available for other purposes without the need for further consent.  The other purposes could be pretty much anything – this is not necessarily about security or terrorism or immigration control or any of the other hot-button topics Labour have used over the past few years to justify their more authoritarian and intrusive policies.

I’m not going to go over the details any further in this post, my intentions here are to flag the issue and help in a small way to raise awareness.  There is a lot of information on the Bill and this clause available on the internet, follow the link above to the Open Rights Group site or just trawl through the UK news sites for more.

If this concerns you please consider joining the campaign to get this clause removed from the Bill.  Write to your MP, visit your MP, dicuss with friends, family and colleagues – whatever you have time for.

Update 8th March 2009

Great News – it looks like the proposal has been removed from the Bill (Guardian, Telegraph).  One small victory for common sense and reason.

MPs Expenses

This is yesterday’s news really but I had to post anyway. The UK government planned to introduce a Statutory Instrument to Parliament today that would have exempted MPs expenses from the Freedom of Information Act, but performed a rather embarrassing last-minute U-turn yesterday afternoon (Guardian, BBC). Gordon Brown claimed that this was due to the Tories pulling their support for the Bill, and there had been growing momentum behind a net-based campaign to oppose the bill led by the excellent mySociety who have claimed at least some of the credit for the U-turn.

Whatever it was that caused Cameron to pull Tory support or really made Gordon and his cronies change their minds, the end result is the right one for Parliament and for Open Government. This was an attempt to exempt themselves from entirely reasonable exposure that they no doubt hoped no one would notice being slipped through – they announced their intentions on the same day as the Heathrow runway decision was published. It’s no wonder that they are regarded as cynical and self-serving! Let’s hope that Tom Steinberg is right when he says “There’s no such thing as a good day to bury bad news any more, the Internet has seen to that.”

On a more personal level, the Labour Government has been responsible for introducing a number of quite intrusive proposals and changes to the law which require the public to sacrifice their privacy and anonymity, for example the national Identity register and the Communications Data Bill. The oft-repeated answer to their civil libertarian critics has been “if you’ve nothing to hide, then you’ve nothing to fear”, and although I think that this statement is deeply flawed I must admit to a certain satisfaction now that they’ve been forced to eat some of their own dog food.

Who’s been losing your data?

Only those with their heads in the sand over the last couple of years can fail to have missed the steady stream of reports of personal data lost by both Government and private companies.

The Open Rights Group, of which I am a member, maintain a page on UK Privacy Debacles listing all the incidences they are aware of.  In December last year they also published a simple on-line survey for people to use to determine how likely it is that their data has been involved in any of these losses.

I’d recommend running through the survey.  If nothing else it gives you a sense of the amount of personal data lost and the huge range of organisations involved.  Food for thought given the current popularity of big, intrusive database projects with politicians.

Back-door European three-strikes rule

As reported elsewhere (Open Rights Group, Boing Boing), there is a set of back-door amendements to a European Telecoms law that will potentially introduce invasive monitoring of internet usage and the removal of internet access following three unsubstantiated accusations of illegal filesharing. These amendments have not been properly discussed or debated given their wide-ranging impact on civil liberties and net neutrality.

I wrote to my MEP via the excellent The vote is tomorrow, so there’s not much time. That’s the problem with back-door deals like this, they tend to avoid democratic scrutiny.

Dear Neil Parish, Glyn Ford, Graham Booth, Graham Watson, Roger Knapman
and Caroline Jackson,

I understand that this coming week (7th July) the European Parliament
will be debating changes to the law governing telecommunications in the
EU, the “Telecoms Package”. It has come to my attention that elements
of these reforms include provisions relating to the “protection” of
intellectual property rights which include opening the door to
collaboration between ISPs and third party media content producers in
monitoring internet usage to detect illegal filesharing. This
monitoring would of course include all legal and normal usage of the

The provisions would also appear to open the door to the kind of
“3-strikes” policy that I understand MEPs have already indicated they
do not favour in that the removal of internet access is felt to be
disproportional (I believe this was indicated in an amendment passed on
the so-called Bono Report on the Cultural Industries, not legally
binding but certainly an indication of feeling and intent.)

These proposals will have an impact on internet access that far exceeds
their supposed aim, and have clear implications for civil liberties and
net neutrality if all usage is to be monitored. For example, the
proposals would also seem to include the legal right for ISPs to
prevent users of their networks from using software and systems that
are perfectly legal, which clearly impacts on free access to online
resources for essentially arbitrary reasons.

There is also the question of how these systems would be policed
themselves and how much democratic oversight there would be of them.
From my (admittedly not too detailed) reading, this is far from
satisfactorily answered. Would users have any recourse against threats
and intimidation from ISPs and/or media producers if they were being
unfairly treated or had internet access curtailed or limited?

Now I understand that some member states are debating similar measures,
but these are being examined in a way that allows more scrutiny and
democratic control. I do not sanction the illegal downloading of
copyright material but I think that if we are to have laws like this
they need to be framed properly following proper debate at the national
level and not brought in by the back door like this, given their wide
ranging potential impact on internet usage.

Please can I ask you to do all you can to prevent Compromise Amendments
2,3,4,5 and 7 from being voted through on the IMCO committee. I do not
believe that the rejection of these amendments will impact the adoption
of the bulk of the “Telecoms Package”.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. I understand that there is
very little time to act but I feel strongly in favour of net neutrality
and civil liberties generally and so had to voice my concern. Perhaps
if these measures were not being introduced in this way there would
have been more time to properly debate this.

Yours sincerely,

Sam Pearson

Digital Civil Liberties

It’s way past time for something like the Open Rights Group in the UK. Nothing for it but to quote their “manifesto” wholesale, as I couldn’t put it better myself:

The Open Rights Group is committed to protecting your digital rights, to fighting bad legislation both in the UK and Europe, and to fostering a grassroots community of volunteers dedicated to campaigning on digital rights issues.

Your civil and human rights are being eroded in the digital realm. Government, big business and industry bodies are taking liberties with your digital liberties, actions they could never get away with in the “real” world.

Our goals are:

  • to raise awareness within the media of digital rights abuses
  • to provide a media clearinghouse, connecting journalists with experts and activists
  • to campaign to preserve and extend traditional civil liberties in the digital world
  • to collaborate with other digital rights and related organisations
  • to nurture and assist a community of campaigning volunteers, from grassroots activists to technical and legal experts

Your right to privacy is being eroded by the government’s ill-conceived ID card scheme, by biometric passports and the threat of vehicle tracking systems. Your right to free speech and freedom to use digital media is under threat from corporations who believe that ‘fair use’ of copyrighted works should exist only at their sufferance. Your right to private life and correspondence is under threat from a proposed European directive to log traffic and geographical data for every call you make, every SMS you send, every email you write, every website you visit.

It is essential in this time of international tension and uncertainty that we vigourously defend our digital civil liberties, ensuring that the our hard-won freedoms are not taken away simply because they’ve moved to the digital world.

If these issues concern you and you can afford to pay out a fiver a month in support of the Open Rights Group, go and sign this pledge. Now.

Coverage of this is spreading across the more geeky parts of the internet (for example Boing Boing) and now it’s been covered at the BBC, so let’s hope that with continued pressure news of this will penetrate further into the mainstream media and more people will start to pay a bit more attention to what’s going on rather than blindly believing the paranoid, dangerously misguided rubbish coming out of the Home Office.

Worse and worse and worse

I’m almost speechless, every time I check the news the reports of death and destruction in south east Asia just get worse. I’ve spent several winters in India, Thailand and Malaysia among welcoming friendly people … I just can’t imagine what they’re all going through right now. If you haven’t already, please go and donate. This is a disaster on a global scale and we should all pull together and forget about our stupid conflicts and wars and arguments and help these people.

Violent censorship: a successful strategy

BBC: Theatre ends play in Sikh protest. So, should you want to deny someone their freedom of speech and expression, you merely need stage a violent protest and you’ll get your own way. What’s the fuck’s going on here? I’m not necessarily a fan of insulting people’s religion, but if you don’t approve of a play, here’s a clue: don’t go to see it. Are the police afraid of being accused of cultural insensitivity or something? If there’s a danger of more violence, it is their duty to protect the theatre, not the responsibility of the theatre to cancel a play out of fear. I’m really beginning to despair of this country. I really am.

Faxed my MP

I used the excellent Fax Your MP service today. It’s the second reading of the ID cards bill on the 20th, so I thought I should make sure I registered my objections to the scheme with my MP, Jean Corston (Lab, Bristol East). Here’s the text of my letter:

Dear Jean Corston,

I’m writing in advance of the second reading of the Identity Cards Bill, which I understand will take place on Monday 20th December.

I would just like to express my opposition to this scheme. Whilst ID cards will be expensive and will involve deeply invasive regulation of our private lives, I have seen nothing that has convinced me that Identity Cards will in any way help protect us from terrorism, or assist in controlling immigration, or indeed any other of the areas that they are alleged by the Home Office to be of benefit.

I am also worried by the data protection and civil liberties implications of the scheme. Again, given that there seems to be little hope that the cards will substantially improve our lives, having so much deeply personal information available from a single source (and one which, let’s face it, has a farily abysmal record in implementing large IT projects) seems too much of a risk.

I suppose that my ideological objections can be summed up in that I see myself as a citizen of the United Kingdom, not a subject. The ID card is more suitable to a state where the opposite emphasis is true.

One final consideration is the cost of this project. Surely there are far more worthy targets of our nation’s resources. Poverty, homelessness, education, health… I’m sure you are more aware than I of many of these issues.

I hope that you will bear these concerns when debating this matter in the House.

Yours Sincerely,

Sam Pearson

Admittedly, doing this today might be a bit short notice, but it’ll be interesting to see what kind of response I get, if any.