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UK Civil Liberties
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Friday, November 30, 2007  

Scare Tactics to Bolster ID Cards

Sky News is running an interview with Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. In it she warns that the number of UK terror plots is rising. She talks of the chilling possibility of a dirty bomb being exploded in a city centre.

The threat from terrorism is indeed serious. People need to be careful. But that's been true for ages. So why this warning just now?

Would it be overly cynical to suggest that the timing has something to do with the recent data loss fiasco? And the growing public pressure to scrap compulsory National Identity Cards?

Well... The same package from Sky goes on to show footage of government research labs where scientists are working on ways to protect us: facial recognition, fingerprinting and other privacy invading biometrics. This, we are told, is not stock footage but a rare glimpse of secret premises - so why did Smith feel the need to authorise such filming just now?

Just in case anyone missed the point, Smith later goes on to explicitly try to defend the ID Card scheme and the huge, intrusive National Identity Register (NIR) on which it will be based.

Yes, the threat from terrorism is real and serious. ID Cards won't prevent terrorism.

To respond to the threat by playing the fear card and turning Britain into a surveillance state is to hand victory to the terrorists.

Tell your MP.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007  

Labour Donor Wanted Privacy

The Brown government is under massive pressure over a party funding scandal. The man at the centre of the row, David Abrahams, has explained that his actions were intended to protect his privacy.

What planet is he living on?

Worrying about privacy whilst supporting Labour is like worrying about the environment whilst dumping chemical waste into a river.

The Labour party is one of the biggest threats to personal privacy that we've seen for generations. Over the last ten years we've seen massive expansion of the national DNA database, a snoopers' charter for civil servants and even fingerprinting of kids at school. This government also wants to impose compulsory National Identity Cards and a huge, intrusive National Identity register.

The government doesn't even properly protect the information it collects: HMRC lost discs containing the personal information on almost every family in Britain. The discs still haven't been found and the information is still out there. Somewhere.

Abrahams is backing the wrong horse.

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Friday, November 23, 2007  

ID Cards: Blunkett Defends Threatened Scheme

David Blunkett has written a letter to The Times in which he tries again to defend the unpopular ID Card scheme. His letter suggests that he has still not understood the concerns of objectors like myself.

Blunkett contends that ID Cards will make us safer because even if personal data is lost (as it will be - accidents happen) then we will be safer because biometrics will protect us against identity theft. That shows a touching faith in technology, an apparent assumption that biometrics will never fail or be cracked. They will be, it's only a matter of time. Blunkett also fails to address how biometrics will be of any use when talking to a call centre outsourced to India.

Blunkett also repeats his claim that "The database is simply about identity". Nonsense. The database will contain dozens of pieces of personal information together with an audit trail that will amount to a complete record of our lives. As such it represents a massive invasion of privacy. It is completely unacceptable for any government to demand that much information on the people it is supposed to serve.

All this comes before even considering the governments desire to encourage greater data sharing. Data sharing that will be facilitated by everyone having a unique National Identity Register Number to potentially act as a common key.

The threat comes not from ID Cards but from the National Identity Register (NIR) and the threat this poses to individual privacy and hence freedom. Whatever Blunkett's initial ideas, the database as now planned is about much, much more than identity.

The NIR is dangerous and must be scrapped.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007  

Final Blow For ID Card Scheme?

Chancellor Alistair Darling admitted yesterday that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has lost personal records of 25 million people - including children. Shadow Chancellor George Osborne said:
"This will be the final blow for the ambitions of the government for the national ID cards scheme — they simply cannot be trusted with people's personal details"

I never expected to agree so strongly with a Tory front bencher.

In the case of this debacle, there is no suggestion of conspiracy or ill intent. It appears to just have been a case of human error. These things happen.

That's the point: these things happen.

If they happen with the benefits records of 25 million people (7.25 million families), how much more often will they happen with the detailed records of all 60 million adults in the UK?

The proposed ID Card scheme will be backed by a vast, intrusive National Identity Register (NIR) that will dwarf the benefits system. The NIR will hold dozens of pieces of personal information on every adult, including an audit trail that amounts to a record of that person's life. Although the NIR won't directly contain bank details, it will contain more than enough information to enable Identity Theft.

No government can be trusted with that much information.

The NIR will be a target for terrorists and organised crime. The government assures us that it will be protected by law, regulation and security. However yesterday's announcement shows that none of this can be enough. Sooner or later accidents will happen.

The only way to prevent NIR data getting into the wrong hands is to prevent the NIR ever being built. The government must now face reality and repeal the Identity Cards Act 2006.

Time to write a few letters.

HMRC has set up a Child Benefit Helpline on 0845 302 1444

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Sunday, November 18, 2007  

Taking Liberties

Last night I watched Taking Liberties on DVD. It's an important documentary that should be watched by everyone in the UK. People in America could also learn what they might have in store.

The film starts with footage of the disgraceful Fairford incident where police "coach-napped" peaceful anti-war protestors and breached their rights.

It then goes back to 9/11 and proceeds to document the way that the Blair government has systematically eroded basic human rights. As a civil liberty advocate I knew most of what was shown but there were a few points that were eye-openers even for me.

The film makes frequent parallels between Blair's Britain and measures introduced in countries such as Nazi Germany and Rwanda. As with the famous NO2ID Blair/Hitler advert the film doesn't say Blair is like Hitler, merely that he is building the tools of totalitarianism.

Of course some people will say that I should be happy I live in a country where I have the freedom to watch a film like Taking Liberties.

I am.

What worries me is that future generations may wake up one day to find they no longer have that freedom.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007  

US Privacy Threatened by Redefinition

The US government appears to be taking a leaf out of Tony Blair's book: if something gets in your way, redefine it out of existence. In this case the target is privacy.

In the US - unlike the UK - most people still understand the importance of privacy. They object to being watched, tracked and listened to. Privacy is also (arguably) protected by the constitution.

So Donald Kerr, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, suggests Americans should redefine privacy. According to AP Kerr says that "Privacy can no longer mean anonymity".

Clever. That sounds like a trivial technicality. In reality, anonymity is at the heart of privacy. Privacy protects knowledge of who does what. Both pillars are important.

Almost everything we do - from buying a book to making a phone call to running a bath - leaves some trace, the "what". If this is connected with the "who" then privacy vanishes.

Yes, I know that these activities aren't truly anonymous now. Someone usually has a record. However at least there is an assumption that these different records won't be accessible to and collated by government. There is an assumption of anonymity except where there is a specific "need to know". Kerr's redefinition would remove that assumption and, by extension, our privacy.

Most worryingly, Kerr goes onto say that privacy should be redefined to mean that "government and businesses properly safeguards people's private communications and financial information."

In other words: "Trust us, we're the government".

Privacy from government is the most important privacy of all. It's essential for a free society.

Changing the language to get rid of awkward words is a technique used in George Orwell's 1984. The Big Brother government introduces Newspeak, where the language has been altered to make dissent impossible.

You can bet that Newspeak has no word for privacy.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007  

Brown To Scrap ID Cards?

The Sunday Mirror today has an encouraging report headlined Brown Scraps I.D. Card Plans. According to the Mirror:
"Gordon Brown is to abandon controversial plans to introduce compulsory ID cards for all.
"Instead, the Prime Minister will focus on tightening up existing anti-terror laws and on new measures to be unveiled in Tuesday's Queen's Speech."

It sounds great, but don't start celebrating yet. This is just one report by one newspaper quoting "Whitehall sources". It's not an official position, probably it's Brown spin doctor floating the idea to see what reaction it gets.

We know how some people react - expect gnashing of teeth from certain tabloids and ex-ministers. We mustn't let them dominate this story, we need to cheer louder than they wail.

So we need to make sure Brown gets the message that abandoning ID Cards will be very popular - and win votes. I for one would be willing to reconsider voting Labour if this report turns out to be true.

What we really need is for a government to repeal the Identity Cards Act 2006 and abandon the National Identity Register (NIR). Until that happens, putting compulsory ID Cards on the back burner is a big step in the right direction.

That's what I'm going to tell Gordon Brown. What about you?

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Thursday, November 01, 2007  

Nothing To Fear?

The London Metropolitan Police have been found guilty of breaking Health & Safety laws and endangering the public in the case of Jean Charles de Menezes. De Menzes was the innocent Brazilian mistaken by police for a suicide bomber in the wake of the attempted 21/7/2005 terrorist attacks. Anti-terrorist officers chased the unarmed man into a tube station and shot him dead.

Health and Safety may seem to be strange grounds on which to bring a case such as this but it was the only legal avenue available to the de Menezes family.

I for one have no doubt that all those involved in this case acted with the highest motives. The individual police officers believed that they were facing a would-be suicide bomber. They believed they were risking their own lives to protect the public.

They were wrong.

The police had the best of intentions yet got things wrong and killed an innocent man. De Menzes had nothing to hide yet, tragically, everything to fear.

At the end of the day the police are human. No matter how much intelligence and technology they have available, they make mistakes like the rest of us.

The tragic case of de Menzes is a reminder of why we must resist calls for more and greater police and state powers - powers such as extended detention without charge and compulsory ID Cards. Such powers may not have fatal consequences but could still ruin lives.

Extreme power leads to extreme abuse, even if that abuse is accidental rather than corrupt. Excessive police and state power is something for all innocent people to fear.

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All material copyright © 2006-2007 Trevor Mendham. Thanks to Judes for the original Atu XVIII card artwork.

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