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UK Civil Liberties
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Wednesday, December 19, 2007  

Scotland Opposes ID Cards

I almost missed this in the Christmas build up:

Last week the Scottish Parliament passed motion S3M-1017 which restated the country's opposition to Identity Cards and other Westminster government attacks on civil liberties. The motion as passed reads:

That the Parliament believes that the fundamental liberties enjoyed by generations of our citizens must not be eroded; welcomes the commitment by the previous Scottish Executive that ID cards would not be needed to access devolved services and its proportionate position on DNA retention; is concerned at the threat to civil liberties from the UK Government's expensive and unworkable proposal to introduce compulsory ID cards; believes that the Scottish Government should not put citizens' privacy at risk by allowing the UK ID database to access personal information held by the Scottish Government, local authorities or other devolved public agencies; therefore calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that all data protection procedures comply with the principles of data protection, namely that personal information must be fairly and lawfully processed, processed for limited purposes, adequate, relevant and not excessive, accurate and up to date, not kept for longer than necessary, processed in line with individuals' rights, secure and not transmitted to other countries without adequate protection, and that audit of data under its jurisdiction is independent of government and accountable to the Parliament; further calls on the Scottish Government to review plans for Scottish Citizens Accounts on the basis of these principles, and takes the view that there should be no blanket retention of DNA samples and that the Assistant Information Commissioner for Scotland should have specific powers to carry out spot checks on the compliance by Scottish government agencies and bodies with the Data Protection Act 1998.

You can read the debate here.

The passing of this motion by our democratically elected parliament is very welcome. Unfortunately at the end of the day it's little more than a token thorn in the side of the Westminster government's plans. Even if the Scottish government chooses not to cooperate, we in Scotland will still be numbered, filed and monitored in the same way as the rest of the UK.

You might like to connect with NO2ID Scotland on Myspace.

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Monday, December 03, 2007  

Poll: ID Card Opponents Outnumber Supporters

When the government first proposed compulsory Identity Cards they claimed 80% public support. This support has fallen away as people have learned more about the huge, intrusive National Identity Register (NIR) behind the scheme.

The recent mass loss of personal information seems to have been the final straw for many people. The Telegraph reports 48% of people now opposed vs only 43% in favour.

With Brown's government under so much pressure in so many areas this is the time to convince them to drop this unpopular scheme.

What can you do? Write to your representatives, write to the newspapers, join NO2ID and sign the plegde.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007  

Another UK Data Debacle

Following the recent loss of sensitive information on child benefit claimants news has emerged of another government breach of privacy. This time it seems that the information wasn't lost but simply forgotten about.

Reports say that a contractor working for the Department of Work and Pensions had personal data on thousands of benefits claimants stored on computer discs. That was completely legitimate, she needed them for her job. But when she stopped working for the DWP she forgot to give the - unencrypted - discs back. And nobody at the DWP seems to have realised she still had them. Nobody ever asked her to return this sensitive personal information - and that was over a year ago.

Some people will attempt to downplay this incident on the grounds that the compromised information didn't contain bank details. That's not the point. This was personal information and the DWP had a duty to protect it. Their failure in that duty shows that this government cannot be trusted to safeguard our private data.

It is the nature of all governments to try and protect their own privacy whilst invading that of the people. This doesn't have to be sinister, it can be due to incompetence, neglect or in the name of improving efficiency.

Which is one reason why no government can be trusted with a huge, intrusive National Identity Register

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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 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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Saturday, October 06, 2007  

UK Snap Election Ruled Out

Gordon Brown has ruled out a snap election this autumn and is unlikely to call one next spring either. He's denied that this is because the latest opinion polls show the Tories 6% above Labour - but nobody's going to believe him.

So the Brown bounce has run out of steam, to mix a metaphor. He is now facing the prospect of not getting a majority in the next election whenever it happens. How can he change minds and win the votes of people like me?

Simple: drop plans for ID Cards and a huge, intrusive National Identity Register (NIR).

It's clear that ID Cards have no positive political value. Few people will switch to Labour because they like the idea, many of us will switch from Labour because we find the scheme totally unacceptable.

If you feel the same way and have a Labour MP, this might be a good time to write and remind him or her that there's now time for them to change Brown's mind, get Blair's dangerous ID Card scheme dropped and win back your vote.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007  

Cameron: The Lesser Evil?

David Cameron gave an impressive performance at the Tory conference yesterday. For once he actually looked like a serious conviction politician rather than than a Tony Blair wannabe. Unfortunately the content of his speech was less impressive.

For all Cameron's claims to the middle ground, his speech contained many of the old Tory standbys: reduced regulation of business, more private schools, welfare cuts, more people in jail and opposition to the Human Rights Act. Cameron is still true blue at heart.

And yet... Cameron opposes Labour's scheme to impose compulsory ID Cards and a huge, intrusive National Identity Register (NIR). He's committed to scrapping ID Cards and to defending the right to trial by jury.

Civil liberties - freedom - is the most important issue of all. Cameron has got it right, Brown is wrong. There is no way I will ever vote for any party that supports ID Cards and the NIR.

It's hardly surprising that so few people in Britain bother to vote. The party system means you're offered job lot of policies and values, it's an all or nothing proposition. Yet I'm one of those who stubbornly insists on voting anyway. So if Gordon Brown does hold a snap general election in November, what will I do?

It's difficult. I don't totally agree with the Lib-Dems either, and they can't possibly win. A hung parliament with them having the balance of power would probably be my preferred option. But what if I lived in a constituency where our voting system means the only real choices are Labour or Tory?

Let's assume the sitting Labour MP wasn't one of the ID rebels. What would I do?

With heavy heart I have to say that I'd vote Tory to keep Labour out. It would be the lesser evil. My hope would be that the Tories would repeal the Identity Cards Act 2006 after which we could vote them out again.

So if there is an election next month then it looks like I'll be pushing for "Anyone But Labour".

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Sunday, September 30, 2007  

Local Councils Get Phone Snoop Powers

If you live in the UK then you've just lost another significant chunk of your privacy.

The Mail reports that as of tomorrow your phone records can be accessed - without your knowledge or consent - by a host of organisations including the tax office, the Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health, the Immigration Service, the Gaming Board and the Charity Commission. And, of course, the local council.

That's a lot of people who can now legally snoop on your records. They won't be able to listen in to your calls but they will be able to find out when and where you last called an ex-partner, a confidential support service or a premium rate kinky chat line.

This massive increase in government snooping powers was sanctioned by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. She has used a statutory instrument to enact the controversial Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations. At around the same date Smith signed another statutory instrument meaning that from tomorrow the government can force you to hand over your decryption keys under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).

Why does any of this technical legal stuff matter? After all, you've done nothing wrong. You've got nothing to hide. You're not a terrorist, a criminal or subversive.

It's a matter of trust. You may trust this government not to abuse these wide-ranging powers - will you trust the next one? And the one after that?

Will your children trust the government in twenty years time?

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Thursday, September 27, 2007  

Letter Bombs: Anti-Surveillance Protester Guilty

School caretaker Miles Cooper has been found guilty of a two week letter bomb campaign earlier this year. He sent seven letter bombs that injured eight people including a pregnant woman.

The establishments Cooper targeted included organisations involved in government surveillance of the UK populace. He was angry at the way Britain has become a surveillance society where we are "one of the most watched societies on the planet". He had previously written to the House of Lords objecting to plans for compulsory ID cards.

Speaking as someone who argues for civil liberties and against surveillance I want to say that there is no justification Cooper's actions. Despite the strength of my opposition to the surveillance state I would never support such attacks. Violence against individuals is unacceptable.

There is a danger here that some on the authoritarian side of the arguments will, at least by implication, suggest that Cooper is representative of all civil liberty advocates. He's not and we need to make that clear

Cooper was right to be angry at the rise of the surveillance state. I share his concerns.

He was wrong to risk harming individuals. I totally condemn his actions.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007  

Feed the Birds (500 Quid a Bag)

The BBC reports on a piece of idiocy I didn't know about: you can be fined 500 quid for feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Apparently a ban was put in place in 2003 and has now been extended to the Square's north terrace.

This is just madness. The pigeons are an integral part of the image of Trafalgar Square. London relies heavily on the tourist trade, it should be investing in iconic images such as these birds. Yes, they cause a mess - so go out and hire more cleaners.

Perhaps the local council could even set up a stall and sell bird food in the square - I reckon they'd get a lot more than tuppence a bag. Possibly even enough profit to pay for the extra cleaning, making everyone happy.

The real issue here isn't one of feeding pigeons, personally I can't stand the critters. This is simply yet another example of the authoritarian attitude that permeates so much of the UK today. Faced with a problem (pigeon droppings) the immediate reaction is to ban something rather than explore other options. That's wrong.

Restrictions on personal freedom are sometimes necessary, but should always be the last resort. Not the first.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007  

Big Brother Cameras Proposed For UK Homes

When campaigning against ID Cards and the National Identity Register (NIR) I've frequently used the following as a hypothetical example: Most child abuse happens at home, so why not put CCTV cameras in every home to protect kids? After all, if you've nothing to hide you've nothing to fear.

That was intended as an extreme, ridiculous example to counteract the naive "nothing to hide..." brigade. I never, ever expected it to become real. Seems like I was the one being naive.

The Herald reports on a proposal to install CCTV cameras in the homes of drug addicts - all, of course, for the sake of the children.

It needs to be stressed that this is just the idea of one academic - Professor Neil McKeganey of the centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University - but the fact that it's even being discussed is worrying. I'm sure McKeganey has the best of motives, but his idea is dangerous. As is his argument:
"What price should we put on our privacy? The question is whether we are prepared to say the principle of the privacy of family life is more important than that of child protection. If we accept that privacy is the most important principle then there will be many more tragic cases."

Now I know what some people are thinking: these are addicts, they're dangerous to the kids, it won't affect me. That's always the way it starts: target the nasty "them", the decent "us" have nothing to fear.

Drug addicts first, who next? People diagnosed as suffering from depression or borderline personality disorders? Anyone who was themself abused as a child? People who smoke? Or who eat too much and might over-feed their kids?

First they came for the junkies...

Remember, most child abuse happens in the home. So once a sufficient critical mass of people have CCTV installed it will be a "natural" next step to put them in every home. All, of course, for the sake of the children.

Could it ever happen? I'd like to think not, but give Britain's surveillance state mentality I can't rule it out.

I remember when mass DNA testing began - it was only for those in the vicinity of particularly nasty and hard to solve murders. The concept expanded until today we are looking at a de facto national DNA database.

CCTV cameras in the streets were initially introduced in areas where there was a history of trouble. Today they're everywhere, even quiet villages.

Only criminal suspects used to be fingerprinted, today nightclubs are fingerprinting customers. Soon the government want us all fingerprinted and numbered for the NIR.

That's the way it goes with freedom: give an inch and they take it all. To protect our own liberties we must protect those of everyone - including junkies. No private home should ever have state CCTV installed.

If the SNP want to prove that they really are better than Labour, the Scottish Executive should publicly condemn and reject McKeganey's proposal.

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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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