UK Liberty

Was 2007 the year the public woke up to the dangers of the database state?

Posted in database state by ukliberty on January 4, 2008

This blog’s statistics are hardly representative but I had more viewers looking at database state -related articles than any other topic in late 2007, after we were told that the HRMC had ‘misplaced’ records (on two CDs sent via post) relating to 25m people and compounded the error by including in its 7.25m letters of apology the very data we were worried about – with some people receiving multiple letters of apology addressed to people they had never heard of!

Then, among (too many) other examples, we heard that information relating to 7m driving test applicants had been lost in Iowa, in the United States, and later that nine NHS trusts had lost lots of our confidential data (hat-tip Ideal Government).

Many people were already worried about their medical records being held ‘centrally’ – previously that was the single most accessed topic on this blog – are they now starting to worry about the rest of the database state?

The Government has been consistently warned for years by independent security experts that we may be simply incapable of securely storing all this data on such a scale and increasing sharing (Transformational Government) and improving ease-of-use.

But the Government continues to press on with data-sharing, “one central storehouse of truth”, and the like, not only nationally but internationally – whether ‘outsourced’ to other countries for processing or storing, or shared with other countries (eg within the EU) for the prevention of crime and so on, apparently regardless of these concerns.

The Justice Committee concluded in their recent report on these issues that

  • There is evidence of a widespread problem within Government relating to establishing systems for data protection and operating them adequately;
  • It is widely accepted that it is necessary to have a substantial increase in the powers given to the Information Commissioner to enable him to review systems for data protection and their application – recent events have underlined the urgency of this; and
  • There is a difficult balance to be struck between the undoubted advantages of wider exchange of information between Government Departments and the protection of personal data. The very real risks associated with greater sharing of personal data between Government Departments must be acknowledged in order for adequate safeguards to be put in place.

It really does boggle the mind that “the very real risks” have yet to be acknowledged, doesn’t it?

But I think it comes down to competence. What a lot of people seem to forget is that those in positions of authority may not be the best people for the job – it is quite scary, isn’t it, to think they might not be any more competent than the rest of us (and indeed some may be even less competent), particularly MPs, who are where they are because of their ability to curry favour.

If we cannot improve competence, then, should we grant a central government such power over our lives, or would it be better to put our eggs in lots of little baskets around the UK?

At least then there would be more easily dealt with little, genuinely isolated failures, rather than millions of people being compromised in one go.


The Register reports that 2007 was the worst year for data protection.


Eroding the rule of law

Posted in rule of law by ukliberty on January 4, 2008

One of the foundations of the rule of law is ‘due process’.

The Times:

GORDON BROWN has set himself on a collision course with the legal establishment over plans to give civil servants and government agencies the power to remove people’s passports without going through the courts.

ie avoiding due process.

Senior legal figures, including two former attorney-generals and a lord chief justice, have expressed deep concern about preparations to adopt new powers to confiscate passports. They warn the government not to use reform of prerogative powers as an excuse to force through a “serious” curtailment of long-standing freedoms.

They have attacked proposals in the child maintenance bill, now going through Parliament, to allow civil servants to prevent errant fathers who refuse to support their children from travelling abroad.

They warn that it could set a dangerous precedent, and say in a House of Lords report: “The freedom to travel to and from one’s country is a right of great significance and should only be curtailed after a rigorous decision process . . . ”

The Lords constitution committee, of which they are members, warns that it is “undesirable to extend the circumstances in which passports may be withdrawn administratively”.

Their concerns have been supported by other senior members of the judiciary, including Lord Carlile QC, a deputy high court judge, who warned against passing court powers to civil servants.

“Revoking passports is a judicial function and not an administrative function. There are judges sitting every single day, and that is the right place to deal with this,” he said. “The right to travel is a fundamental right.”

Although football hooligans and drug dealers can be forced to forfeit their passports, the decision would follow court orders.

In other cases, such as in child protection cases and cases involving serious crime, people can be forced to surrender their passports only after a court decision or as part of a police investigation.

I know what the Government thinks about expediency vs. due process – they will opt for the former (see this and this).

(hat-tip Roger Thornhill)

War on Terror over

Posted in law and order by ukliberty on January 4, 2008


The words “war on terror” will no longer be used by the British government to describe attacks on the public, the country’s chief prosecutor said Dec. 27.

Sir Ken Macdonald said terrorist fanatics were not soldiers fighting a war but simply members of an aimless “death cult.”

The Director of Public Prosecutions said: ‘We resist the language of warfare, and I think the government has moved on this. It no longer uses this sort of language.”

London is not a battlefield, he said.

“The people who were murdered on July 7 were not the victims of war. The men who killed them were not soldiers,” Macdonald said. “They were fantasists, narcissists, murderers and criminals and need to be responded to in that way.”

Exactly.  Don’t turn them into heroes – they were criminals, not soldiers, just like all terrorists.

His remarks signal a change in emphasis across Whitehall, where the “war on terror” language has officially been ditched.

Officials were concerned it could act as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda, which is determined to manufacture a battle between Islam and the West.

(hat-tip Bruce Schneier)

David Davis on databases

Posted in database state, ID Cards, politicians on liberty, surveillance society by ukliberty on January 4, 2008

In the Times:

If Gordon Brown picks one failure from his first six months to learn from, it should be the loss of 25m people’s personal details. If he makes one resolution for 2008, it should be to scrap his reckless plan to introduce compulsory ID cards.

“Discgate” was the result of ministerial incompetence, but also flawed policy. As chancellor, Brown relentlessly pursued his forlorn vision of a “joined-up identity management regime” across public services. As prime minister, he continues this vain search, like an obsessed alchemist, for a giant database that his closest advisers ominously refer to as a “single source of truth”.

This fixation has not revolutionised public services. It has led to disaster. Brown’s approach combines three flaws: the ruthless pursuit of “identity management”; a naive faith in computerised solutions; and sheer recklessness in managing the integrity of systems to which he is devoted. This has delivered a massively overcentralised government and a surveillance society.

the government is not a reluctant player in this European Union agenda. It is the pioneer, piloting Project Stork, the codename for a scheme to make all EU electronic identity networks “interoperable” within three years. It does not augur well that the home secretary had not even heard of Project Stork when questioned in parliament last month.

Instead of treating our personal details and private life as though they were the property of the state, it is about time ministers understood that this information is held on trust. We need serious restrictions on the transfer and sharing of such information. The current casual and careless practice is intolerable.

A Government IT scheme that worked!

Posted in Uncategorized by ukliberty on January 4, 2008

Ah but never fear, my cynical friends: the original Police Portal may have been delivered on time, and proved useful, but the powers-that-be decided to replace it, and that scheme failed. Now there is no Police Portal at all.

Tony Collins at Computer Weekly has more.