UK government pushes for data retention across the EU

Following the 7th July bombings in London, the British government is pushing for communications service providers to retain data for upto 3 years for access by the police and intelligence agencies:

Under the proposals, telecoms operators and Internet service providers would have to keep records of emails, telephone calls and text messages for between 12 months and three years. Law enforcement agencies would be able to see who had sent and received these communications, although the content of these communications would not be stored.

Home secretary Charles Clarke claims that the powers would help to establish links between individuals.

This move is despite the fact that the European Parliament recently rejected these proposals, though because the proposal was put forward under the “third pillar” it has no power to stop the proposals if the member states push ahead with them.

An extraordinary meeting of the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs Council called by Charles Clarke has given backing to these data retention powers. Yet, surely it would be trivial for any terrorists to circumvent such measures to try and spy on them. For example, each of the following methods would make data retention useless for monitoring who they communicate with:

  • Buying and regularly changing unregistered pay as you go mobile phones.
  • Using anonymous internet accounts and other anonymising services to hide your activities.
  • Communicating face to face.
  • Posting coded messages from newly created internet accounts to usenet groups, making it impossible to determine who the message was for, let alone who actually read it.
  • Communicating via dead drops.
  • Communicating via postal services.

So the end result is that all this data will be stored for the law abiding public and those who wish to circumvent it will do so easily.

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Telegraph columnist: "House Arrest scarred me for life, Mr Clarke"

Eric Abraham, writing in the Telegraph, describes his house arrest in apartheid era South Africa:

“One crucial difference, however, remains. Within one week Charles Clarke must refer such an order to a court which has the power to quash it. How long such a judicial review will take seems unclear. But what of the psychological damage done to the individual who may well be innocent of any terrorist act, or even the intention to act, during the period prior to the outcome of a judicial review? The effect of the sudden brutal assault on my civil liberty almost 30 years ago remains with me to this day. The Cape Times editorial went on, “Mr Abraham is being sentenced to a living death and, unless he is an individual of extraordinary inner resources, is being subjected to a species of mental torture which could cause grave psychological damage”.

Since the imposition of house arrest, as opposed to banning (similar to the “lighter” version of Mr Clarke’s “control order”), was relatively rare in apartheid South Africa – certainly for whites – the white public presumption was one of my guilt of a crime of heinous proportions. South Africa was a fear-ridden society convinced that it was under terminal threat from “die swaart en rooi gevaar”, the black and red (Communist) danger. Fears stoked daily by the apartheid government. It is hard not to draw parallels with the Islamic fundamentalist terror threats which we are bombarded with daily – threats which Mr Clarke and Mr Blair use to justify the proposed Bill.

Not unlike an Islamic fundamentalist I was therefore Public Enemy No 1, held up to public gaze in a small ground-floor apartment. Not a good place to be at 22. The death threats started almost immediately. My telephone was left connected and tapped and they usually called at night. I would hear how I had betrayed my country and white skin and how they, Right-wing extremists, were going to kill me the next day. Because my case was taken up by Amnesty International and even prompted a motion in the Commons, I had armed police outside my house ostensibly to protect me from the extremist threats. Given the sympathies of the police I did not feel safe and slept in the bath on a number of occasions. My car brake cable was cut, a hearse arrived to collect my body, wreaths were delivered, known violent Right-wingers belonging to a group called Scorpio walked up and down the street outside.

I was scared for my life. No law should enable a government minister to impose restrictions that would subject anyone to this kind of experience for any period of time. Isolation and fear. These are the abiding emotions, the residue of which still lurk deep in my sub-conscious. How odd. I write this with the window wide open and the cold wind gusting around me and yet I find that I am sweating.

But, unlike Rick Turner, the first husband of the Labour backbencher Barbara Follet, who was murdered under house arrest in South Africa in 1978, I was lucky. In 1977 I escaped after a few weeks into 15 years of exile. I left a repressive police state for a liberal democracy where the rule of law was sacrosanct, where house arrest and torture were as inconceivable as slavery. It was a country which generously gave me a safe haven and political asylum – another great tradition. It was Britain.”

I fear that the Britain Mr Abraham writes of is dying.

And although the judge may review the detention within 7 days, because the detainee and his lawyer may be barred from seeing the evidence used to justify the detention, a proper defence cannot be mounted.

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Opposition growing to house arrest proposals

It seems that opposition to Charles Clarke’s proposals to impose house arrests on suspected terrorists without trial is growing. Firstly, there was George Churchill-Coleman’s comments to the Guardian claiming that the proposals were impractical and he feared that Britain was “sinking into a police state”.

Then, both the Tories and Liberal Democrats are reported to be opposed to the measures:

“Controversial government plans to keep terror suspects under house arrest rather than in jail could falter in parliament and fail to become law.

The Conservatives declared on Wednesday they would oppose the new scheme, hastily drawn up after the highest court ruled that imprisoning foreign suspects without trial broke human rights law.

With the Liberal Democrats also against, and many in the Labour party uneasy, the legislative battle could be bloody.”

However Michael Howard, the Tory leader has agreed to meet with Blair to discuss the proposals:

“Mr Howard argued that it was wrong in principle for anyone to be deprived of their liberty “on the say-so of a politician” and argued that those accused of terrorist offences should be brought to trial and detained in prison in the meantime.

Mr Howard went on to ask Mr Blair to meet him “to see if we can agree on a way forward which will command a wide degree of public confidence on these vitally important issues”.

Acknowledging the civil liberties implications of the Government’s plans, Mr Blair said he would be “perfectly happy” to meet Mr Howard to see whether it was possible to find a common way forward on dealing with terror suspects who cannot be brought to trial.”

I suspect a stitch up job here, which will result in measures only slightly less fascist than these proposals being agreed to.

But then yet more opposition has appeared, with the head of the Metropolitican Police, Sir Ian Blair coming out in favour of using intercept evidence in court as an alternative:

Perhaps more importantly Sir Ian also disagrees with the Government about the best way of dealing with suspected terrorists. Although Charles Clarke is proposing to detain suspects in their own homes without trial, the Commissioner believes that it would be better to allow intercept evidence to be used in court so that they can be tried.

“I have long been in favour of intercept evidence being used in court,” he says. “In policing terms, it would make my job much easier. The simple reason why it would be better is that if we’ve got this, we can put it in front of a court and the court can weigh it up. At the moment, nobody can test it.”

His concern with the proposals for house arrest is that Muslims will feel alienated from the police if they see officers searching everybody who goes into a suspected terrorist’s house.

“The community will say to us, ‘What are you doing with these people, why have you got these people under all of this, why don’t you just tell us what it is you’ve got?’ That’s my position but, of course, there’s a legitimate argument on the other side.”

He is using diplomatic language, and I’m not sure there really is a legitimate argument on other side (save in the most extreme circumstances, but we’re not facing those), but it is clear he’s at odds with the government on this. It is worth noting that the civil liberties group “Liberty” has also come out in favour of accepting intercept evidence in court:

Backing Sir Ian’s stance, Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said: “Judges rather than politicians should decide when to authorise phone tapping.

“However, if it is legitimate to eavesdrop on someone’s private phone calls, it is nonsensical not to use relevant material in a criminal trial.”

It really is strange that Britain and Ireland alone in Europe do not allow intercept evidence in court. The US does it, France does it, Israel does it, Canada does it. Their security agencies seem to be able to cope why not ours?

And isn’t worth trying measures that will help bring people to trial rather than dispensing with a trial altogether, at a serious risk to individual liberty?

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Former anti-terrorist officer says Britain is sinking into a police state.

The Guardian reports that George Churchill-Coleman, who headed Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist squad in the 1980s and 1990s, and who had to tackle the threat posed by the IRA has this to say on the govt’s house arrest proposals:

George Churchill-Coleman, who headed Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist squad as they worked to counter the IRA during their mainland attacks in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said Mr Clarke’s proposals to extend powers, such as indefinite house arrest, were “not practical” and threatened to further marginalise minority communities. Mr Churchill-Coleman told the Guardian: “I have a horrible feeling that we are sinking into a police state, and that’s not good for anybody. We live in a democracy and we should police on those standards.

He added: “I have serious worries and concerns about these ideas on both ethical and practical terms. You cannot lock people up just because someone says they are terrorists. Internment didn’t work in Northern Ireland, it won’t work now. You need evidence.”

I quite agree. And whom am I to argue with an ex anti-terrorist officer? Incidently, I think I can locate the cause of Mr Churchill-Coleman’s horrible feeling: We are sinking into a police state.

On a completely different topic, the blogger behind the auroran sunset has said he’s unable to select text on my blog, using the Firefox and Safari browsers. I am able to do so with Firefox, whether I’m logged into the account or not. I’ve also checked the template and settings and can’t find any obvious reason why this should be the case. I’ve regenerated the whole blog and enabled the facility to email articles to friends to see if this helps. Anyway please let me know if you’re having any difficulties.

A note to the auroran sunset if you’re reading this.

I’ve emailed you via the email address you use on usenet. I hope that gets through. I couldn’t find any other address on your website and I didn’t want to create a new blog on just to send you a comment via the diary (your disabling of anonymous comments limits comments to livejournal users).

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House arrest without trial proposed.

Charles Clarke announced today his response to the recent Law Lords ruling that indefinite detention of foreign nationals who are suspected terrorists without trial contravened the ECHR.

Instead of detaining them in jail, Clarke has decided to allow indefinite detention of British resident, regardless of nationality and without trial, in their own homes:

Under the new powers, the government would no longer be able to jail suspects without charge, but could forbid them from meeting certain people, impose curfews or electronic tagging on them or confine them to house arrest.

Unlike the previous measures, which were based on immigration law and applied only to foreigners, the new measures could be used against British nationals. The government would not have to prove suspects had committed a crime.

It’s still total loss of liberty, and total loss of liberty without due process is exactly what the Law Lords ruled is wrong,” Natalie Garcia, lawyer for two detainees, told Reuters.

“It used to be foreigners. It can be absolutely anyone now. You can be one day, normal citizen minding your own business, next day banged up in your home unable to go out in the garden.“(Emphasis added)

And who would decide which people get subjected to this treatment? Charles Clark (or any future Home Secretary):

The proposed changes would mean the home secretary could order British citizens to be held under house arrest without putting them on trial.

Thus the fascist control freaks British government are proposing to give themselves the power to jail anyone in Britain, on the say so of the Home Secretary (not the courts!), and prevent them from communicating with others — possible restrictions include restrictions on accessing telecommunications/the internet as well as who you can meet.

If this comes to pass, how long will it be before the govt proposes to extend these powers to those suspect of any serious crime rather than terrorism? The excuse being we can’t afford to allow (suspected) paedophiles, murderers, rapists, organised criminals, fox hunters, or ID card dodgers to roam freely…

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Charles Clarke’s woolly defence of the govt’s ID cards

Charles Clarke has written an article in The Times defending the govt’s plans for identity cards. He claims that ID cards will prevent benefit fraud and help in the “War on Terror”. However his claims do not stand up to scrutiny.

Take for example benefit fraud. He states:

Moreover, their help in tackling fraud will save tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Some £50 million a year is claimed illegally from the benefits systems using false identities. This money can be far better spent improving schools and hospitals and fighting crime and antisocial behaviour.

However according to the govt’s own regulatory impact assessment (see clause 19):

The current best estimate is that the additional running costs of the new Agency to issue ID cards on a wider basis will be £85m pa when averaged over a ten year period. A further £50m pa is the estimate for the average cost over ten years of the verification service but this would not fall on the individual card holder.

Thus the system is already projected at costing more than twice as much as could possibly be saved from benefit fraud on the govt’s own figures!

Later on, Clarke accuses critics of ID cards for woolly liberal thinking, and claims there will be no real cost in civil liberties:

I believe that some critics of our proposals are guilty of liberal woolly thinking and spreading false fears when they wrongly claim that ID cards will erode our civil liberties, will revisit 1984, usher in the “Big Brother” society, or establish some kind of totalitarian police state. Those kinds of nightmare will be no more true of ID cards, when they are introduced, than they have been for the spread of cash and credit cards, driving licences, passports, work security passes and any number of the other current forms of ID that most of us now carry.

This argument is quite flawed. The forms of ID we now carry are either entirely voluntary (e.g credit cards, ATM cards, loyalty cards) or linked to and limited to very specific purposes (e.g. driving licences, passports). One is not even required to carry any of them, and one needn’t own any of them if one doesn’t wish to drive or travel abroad. None of them are universal.

However the main points missed in the above argument are that:

  • On the govt’s current plans, the ID cards would become a licence to live, revokable at the touch of button. Once the cards become compulsory the govt plans for them to be required for getting a job, accessing government services and accessing benefits. It is highly likely they’ll also become necessary for opening bank accounts, taking out mortgages, getting credit cards and making major transactions. Clarke’s article even suggests they might be used for renting videos. With so much of daily life tied to these cards, it will be impossible or at least very difficult to live without one. And given that they’ll be tied to a central database with one entry per person, they could be rendered useless at the touch of a button by govt officials either deleting or flagging the database entry. This isn’t an identity card, this is an internal passport.
  • According to the ID cards bill, the database entries will record all accesses for auditing purposes, thus every time you or your card is checked against the corresponding database entry, this fact will be recorded. Thus if a card check is required for accessing e.g. medical or educational services, this fact will be recorded in the database. Thus the ID card system will enable detailed recording of your everyday activities, more comprehensive than any store’s loyalty card and compulsory to boot.
  • The ID card will facilitate all sorts of surveillance activity. If every resident has one by law, then the police merely need to ask for identification when people leave, e.g. political or religious meetings, protests, pubs, or any venue. Although carrying one won’t be compulsory, the bulk of the law abiding population is likely (a) to carry it (because it is needed for so many things) (b) hand it over. And there’s nothing to stop a future govt making it compulsory to carry.

It thus seems clear to me that the proposed system will form a powerful tool for social control and has very little to do with eliminating benefit fraud. However Clarke’s claims that it will be useful for fighting terrorism, will help with identity fraud, and will even help prevent such tragedies as the death of the cocklers in Morecambe Bay, remain:

For example, a secure identity system will help to prevent terrorist activity, more than a third of which makes use of false identities. It will make it far easier to address the vile trafficking in vulnerable human beings that ends in the tragedies of Morecambe Bay, exploitative near-slave labour or vile forced prostitution. It will reduce identity fraud, which now costs the UK more than £1.3 billion every year.

Taking the £1.3 billion figure first. This figure comes from a report on identity fraud produced by the government a few years ago (see Annex B for the figures). However the figures contributing to this are not reliable, often included items that identity cards would do nothing to fight and were often based on guesswork. For example the figure was compiled, in part, on the assumption that 10% of VAT fraud (£215m out of £2.15billion) was due to identity fraud. The figures for credit card fraud (£370m) included card not present fraud e.g. for internet payments or payments over the phone. ID cards would have no impact on this. Why is the govt using such a dodgy figure to argue for a flagship piece of legislation?

As for the Morecambe Bay cocklers they were working illegally and off the books for companies that did not have scruples about employing illegal immigrants trafficked in from outside the country. How likely is it that such companies would ensure all their employees had ID cards? How likely is it that illegal workers would contact the authorities to register? The problem here was a lack of policing of employment/immigration, not a lack of identity cards. Unless the policing of these areas is increased the identity cards will make no difference.

Finally to the terrorists using multiple identities, it would appear that on Clarke’s figures most terrorists (about two thirds of them) do not do so and therefore would not be affected by identity cards. Still disrupting the activities of the remaining third would be quite useful. But will the identity cards do this?

It is here that the discussion has to get down to some technical issues and the hurdles the identity cards system faces. The government is relying on biometric scans such as fingerprints and iris scans to prevent multiple identities being registered on the system for the same person. So, for example, when you enroll on the system your biometric scans will be compared with those already on the system to try and ensure you only get one identity on the system. Clearly allowing multiple identities will seriously undermine the ability of the system to deal with any of the problems above.

And this is where things fall down. Biometric scans are scans of living systems (people!) and multiple scans of the same part of the same person will not be identical. Moreover when comparing biometric scans one looks for closeness of match. Thus when deciding whether two scans match, one has to decide where to draw the line — how close a match is good enough. Thus each biometric has associated with it a false match rate (the chance of two scans from different people matching) and false nomatch rate (the chance of two scans from the same person not matching). These typically have to be balanced off against each other to find a happy mean.

Now suppose you have a false match rate for a biometric of say 1 in a billion (higher than any I’ve seen claimed for existing biometrics — typical claims range from 1 in 10000 to 1 in a few million). Note that this must include the possibility of operator error in using the machines, faulty machines and software errors. Suppose further that the database already has 20 million entries in it. There will be almost a 2% chance that a false match occurs. I.e. 1 in 50 people will register a false match, against a database of 20 million. And this figure will grow with each addition. The govt’s plans would involves millions of people registering per year. For each million new people added, one can expect 20,000 (and growing) false matches on a database of 20 million people. Any system for dealing with these false matches and trying to ensure they’re not attempts to fool the system into taking multiple identities are likely thus to get overwhelmed, they’ll need to deal with 10s of thousands of false positives.

To add further doubt, this is a large IT system, one of the largest the govt will ever have attempted to produce. It’s record with such systems (criminal records bureau, passport office, etc) is atrocious. Even the Police National Computer is shot full of errors!

As if that weren’t enough, both fingerprints and iris scans have been shown to be forgeable. For example, fingerprints have been forged from prints left on a glass. And Iris scanners have been fooled by someone looking through a picture of an Iris with a hole cut out where the pupil lies. Admittedly the latter technique wouldn’t be practical in most situations, but the lack of sophistication of the technique suggests, e.g. contact lenses printed with an Iris might actually fool the scanners.

At any rate, I’d expect those wishing to fool the system to use the long roll out to study the system and the scanners intently for weaknesses. Given government incompetence, the technical limitations of biometrics and the sheer ambition of what the govt’s attempting, it seems to me quite clear that it’ll be lucky if it makes any positive impact on fighting identity fraud or any other problem the govt has cited at all.

Does this mean we have nothing to worry about? Not quite. Most law abiding people will cooperate with the system, and the system may well thus “work” for this section of the population. Thus law abiding people will find themselves subjected to a licence to live, intrusive surveillance and a bureacracy capable of meddling in just about every area their lives thanks to the card. The criminals and terrorists won’t.

The cards should be abandoned as a waste of resources from an anti-crime/anti-terrorism/anti-benefit fraud point of view and as a serious erosion of privacy and individual freedom otherwise.

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