Archive for the ‘Crime & Justice’ Category

A few thoughts on the death of hacktivist Aaron Swartz

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

Today I heard that hacktivist Aaron Swartz killed himself. He was just 26 years old. I met Aaron at various Open Government conferences. He was an incredibly intelligent original thinker who was committed to freedom of information and democracy. He went beyond the rhetoric and put his principles into action. While I was researching the Boston hacker scene for The Revolution Will Be Digitised he generously agreed to help me. I’ve decided to post that section here to give a sense of the man we’ve lost.

…I can count on one finger my Boston contacts. Fortunately that person is Aaron Swartz, who’s in the Cambridge tech/activist scene. He describes himself as a writer, activist and hacker and at twenty-five his CV is impressive: currently founder and director of a democracy campaign group, Demand Progress, he previously co-founded Reddit.com (a website for sharing news links) and was part of the original team to launch Creative Commons. At fourteen he co-authored the Really Simple Syndication (RSS 1.0) specification for publishing news updates. In the information war he’s participated in a few guerrilla campaigns which have accorded him his own FBI file (posted on his blog). In 2008, he hacked into a federal court library system to leak over 18 million public documents that the government had been charging citizens to access. Swartz only realised how much trouble he was in when the FBI started monitoring him. He got himself a lawyer, but luckily the New York Times got on the case and made him something of a cause célèbre. The FBI eventually backed off: it looked bad to spend taxpayers’ money going after a kid for making public records more publicly available.

Aaron has set me up with a room in a place called the Acetarium but even standing outside the door on this cold November night I can’t tell if it’s a hostel, a hotel or a house. I telephone the proprietor Benjamin Mako Hill and in a few minutes I see pale legs jumping down the stairs. He’s known as ‘Mako’, he tells me, and he has an impish, Irish look with a pointy Pan-like beard and big mischievous blue eyes with a ring through his left eyebrow. He’s wearing an American flag do-rag and a yellow cycling jacket. He’s brimming with energy and hops up the stairs two at a time. On the landing is a sign: ‘Shoes and pants off please’. I leave mine (shoes that is) at the door and head in.

Inside, over some home-made vegetable dumplings, I meet Mako’s wife and some of the other residents: a twenty-year-old couchsurfer from North Carolina, a freelance software programmer in the spare room and a guinea pig whose owner has gone travelling. Mako himself is a scholar at MIT’s media lab specialising in sociology and online communities and he’s an active member of the Free Software Foundation. He sounds exactly the sort of person who can put me in touch with the people I need to talk to, but when I start asking questions he clams up. ‘I’m not into that scene,’ he says tersely, tapping his foot. ‘I don’t know any of those people.’

Later that evening, Aaron comes over to the Acetarium and tells me this used to be the original Reddit offices. He passed them to Mako when Reddit was bought by Condé Nast and he and the other founders moved out to San Francisco to live the dream. He says California wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Neither was the office job at Condé Nast. He’s since been fired, dropped out of Stanford and is now a fellow at the Center for Ethics at Harvard University as well as running his campaign group. He has an intense curiosity that lasers into whatever happens to interest him at any given moment, but the attention is short, and soon he’s off delving into something else. Fortunately his immediate interest is my ‘quest’, so he grabs a nearby laptop to see what he can find online. A quick glance of Tyler Watkins’ and David House’s social networks reveals they’re both linked to someone called Danny Clark. It’s a long shot, but I ask Mako if he knows Danny Clark. His response is straightforward enough: ‘Never heard of him.’

‘But he’s on your list of LinkedIn contacts,’ says Aaron, now perusing Mako’s profile, and I remind Mako there’s no privacy on the Internet. He reiterates that he’s ‘not involved in any of this, and I don’t want anything to do with it’.

‘What’s wrong with answering her questions?’ Aaron counters.

‘You don’t understand, there’s been all kinds of people round here.’

‘I understand completely. I was investigated by the FBI, don’t forget. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk. We’re not in a police state yet.’

I decide not to press my host any further, but I’m struck by his guardedness. Clearly people are scared, and I begin to worry if I’ll get anything at all out of this trip. Maybe to make up for his reticence, Mako invites me to come along to a pub in Harvard Square where every Sunday he organises a social evening for a group of techie friends studying or working at MIT or Harvard. I meet all sorts of interesting people including a woman working on the human genome project, but the most interesting of all is another Brit who tells me he lives with Danny Clark…

While I was in Boston, Aaron told me he was working on another ‘project’ which I found out later was his guerrilla action to liberate academic articles. In July 2011, he was arrested and charged with downloading 4.8 million academic articles between September 2010 and January 2011 from JSTOR, a research subscription service offering digitised copies of academic journals and documents. He was accused of breaking into a computer wiring closet on MIT’s campus and downloading the documents which prosecutors say he intended to share online. Swartz turned himself in and pleaded not guilty to charges including wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer. He was released on a $100,000 unsecured bond and faced up to thirty-five years in prison, if convicted. In September 2012, federal prosecutors added even more charges.

Aaron wasn’t a dangerous person who hurt people. His mission was to free public information. Shamefully for that he was targeted by certain justice officials in what amounted to more of a persecution than a prosecution. I think the war on hackers has gone on long enough. Officials need to understand that criminalising the best and the brightest is not good public policy.

More on Aaron Swartz here and here.

Article: Police attempting to criminalise investigative journalism

Friday, September 9th, 2011


Investigative journalism must not be criminalised
Guardian, 9/10 September

Police questioning of journalists such as the Guardian’s Amelia Hill who seek to uncover corruption is a worrying trend

The questioning under caution of the Guardian reporter Amelia Hill by the Metropolitan police is part of a worrying trend: for the police appear to be using their power not to root out corruption or bribery, but to stop a reporter doing her job, namely to winkle out the truth about an issue of public importance.

Hill reported a number of stories about the phone-hacking scandal, including the revelation of Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked by News of the World. It was this story that finally compelled police and politicians to fully investigate a scandal that some had known about for years. Commentators have seen Hill’s questioning as part of a wider attempt to criminalise contact between journalists and off-the-record sources.

But there is nothing unusual about police and reporters hanging out together. In the old days of crime reporting this was commonplace and it was not unduly difficult to strike a balance between keeping the public informed without endangering investigations. But in the age of public relations and spin, such free conversations are looked upon by the authorities as highly dangerous – not to policing so much as to those in power. Such free conversations might lead to challenging questions.

The danger with a centralised police PR operation is that information is used not to benefit the public but to benefit those in power, often to the detriment of the public. It is for this reason that officers “leak”, because they want to solve their cases and they know they can only do so with the help and co-operation of the public.

The situation Hill has apparently been questioned about calls to mind two recent cases. Philip Balmforth was a former police inspector and vulnerable persons officer responsible for Asian women in the Bradford area of West Yorkshire. He was praised in a House of Commons early day motion signed by 56 MPs in March 2008 for being a “knight in shining armour” who “does everything he can to protect people and give them time to assess the situation they are in”. Yet a week after he was praised in parliament he was facing a disciplinary hearing for “damaging the reputation” of West Yorkshire police, all because he spoke directly to a journalist.

“I had a speech ready for every journalist – after being told the publicity had to stop,” Balmforth told me. “The speech was: ‘You must contact the press office.’ But many in the media would ask for ‘off the record’ background to the problem, which I would willingly give, subject to contacting the press office before using it (who would always refuse).

Balmforth spoke out in the Times challenging the official figure given by the government’s forced marriage unit that there were 300 cases of forced marriage annually, saying he dealt with that many in West Yorkshire alone.

We should be grateful to Balmforth for alerting us to the problem of forced marriage. Instead he was stripped of his position by the police force. He has now retired.

Another police officer who dared to question one force’s use of covert surveillance was himself put under surveillance and his friend Sally Murrer, a journalist at the Milton Keynes Citizen, was arrested and threatened with life in prison.

(more…)

Police hearings held in secret

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Freedom of Information requests have revealed that 48 police officers in Wales have faced serious misconduct hearings in the past three years, including allegations of assault, careless driving, drinking on duty and breach of confidentiality, all of which were held in secret.

Yesterday, the Western Mail reported that calls had been made for public hearings for police officers, in line with doctors, nurses and teachers. Councillor Malcolm King told the paper:

It is a balance between what harm is done by having them out in the open against what harm is done by not doing so.
For pubic services the question should always be, ‘are we being open enough with the public, do the public have a right to know and is it in the public interest?’ There needs to be a change in priorities.
All hearings should have to be held in public unless there is a good reason to have them in private, not the other way around.

A spokesman for Dyfed Powys Police, the force which was heavily criticised for arresting a citizen who refused to stop filming a public council meeting earlier this month, said the figures only referred to misconduct hearings, and that minor cases were brought to misconduct meetings as outlined by government policy. John Feavyour from the Association of Chief Police Officers defended the current system, saying other public professions only hold hearings in public when allegations are ‘serious breaches’ that ‘involve their professional bodies’.

Gwent police officers smashed the car window of Robert Whatley, 71, after he was pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt. He was denied access to the disciplinary hearing that vindicated the two officers involved, as was his lawyer. His son Peter pointed out that the hearing panels are made up of senior police officers rather than independents, and told the Western Mail:

These hearings need to be held in public simply for accountability. If a doctor is accused of breaching confidentiality or a teacher for assaulting a pupil they are made accountable in public hearings, why should it be any different for police officers? It is an antiquated system and sets a dangerous precedent.

Tom Whatley is right, and disciplinary hearings should be accessible, transparent and effective. If justice is not seen to be done, if it is done at all, then hearings serve little purpose other than to spare the blushes of chastised officers. If the public are to have confidence in the police, they need to see the police live under the same laws as the rest of the population, and face consequences when those laws and codes are broken.

FOI requests submitted by the Times (£)

Surveillance: the other side of the lens

Friday, June 17th, 2011

Jacqui Thompson, a campaigner and blogger, was arrested last week by Dyfed Powys Police after she refused to stop filming a council meeting. She was angered by the way that members of Carmarthenshire Council had dismissed a petition (presented by elderly campaigners trying to save a local day centre) and decided to start recording the meeting on her phone. In her words, the reason for this was obvious: “People need to know what is going on in that Chamber.”

Ms Thompson refused to leave; she was not disturbing the meeting in anyway, or breaking the law, or contravening the council’s standing orders. The police were called, four officers arrived and Ms Thompson was arrested for breaching the peace. She was taken to a police station 30 miles away and held in a cell for two hours. News of the arrest quickly made its way onto Twitter, where the discussion earned the hash tag #DaftArrest.

The circumstances of the arrest were indeed daft. Legal blogger David Allen Green submitted several questions to the Dyfed Powys Police press office calling for an explanation as to why and under what circumstances Ms Thompson was arrested. Four days later an official response was emailed back and issued on their website. It was riddled with factual inaccuracies and gave no proper reason for the arrest itself (you can read David Allen Green’s full breakdown of the response here).

Ms Thompson pointed out the real injustice when she said: “I can’t quite believe what happened to me for trying to film a public meeting.”

Filming a public council meeting is not a breach of the peace, a fact that even the police attending the scene were confused over. The members of the council who called the police, including the Chair, were uncomfortable at being recorded when attending to issues of public concern, one of which being the petition signed by 1500 local residents. Jacqui Thompson’s arrest, as she puts it, is about the wider issues of local government transparency. Surveillance is power, but for ordinary citizens to be empowered is dangerous in the eyes of the council. Local authorities are clearly not happy to be on the other side of the lens.

Police press offices are a public insult

Friday, October 1st, 2010

I ran into the Guardian’s Paul Lewis after the Julian Assange event at City University last night. He’d just come from reporting this story on the fallout from the secret £3m CCTV surveillance operation that targeted Muslims in Birmingham.

Project Champion was sold to residents as a safety measure. Residents were told that the hundreds of CCTV and Automatic Numberplate Recognition Cameras (ANPR) installed in streets around Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath would be used to combat vehicle crime and antisocial behaviour. Police had planned a total of 218 cameras in the area, 72 of which would be covert.

It was due to an investigation by Paul Lewis that the truth came out which was that the project was, in fact being run from the West Midlands police counter-terrorism unit with the consent of security officials at the Home Office and MI5.

Yesterday, Thames Valley Police released their report into the project and found among other things that:

Police devised a “storyline” that concealed the true purpose of the cameras. Counter-terrorism insignia was removed from paperwork as part of a deliberate strategy to “market” the surveillance operation as a local policing scheme to improve community safety.

This ties it directly with something I talk about in The Silent State – the takeover of Public Relations in our public bodies. But there was another worrying thing I discovered about this incident while talking to Paul.

West Midlands Police had failed to tell him about the press conference and then refused to respond to any of his enquiries once another reporter told him about the event. He ended up tweeting:

At 1.07pm: ‘West Midlands police press office ignoring my queries about inquiry into Project Champion Muslim spy plan.’

Then at 2.21pm when there was still no response he named the head of the press office directly: ‘could @mattmarkham1 or his colleagues in west midlands police office answer questions about this story? http://bit.ly/bRy5zb’

‘I phoned seven times and they still never responded,’ Paul said.

Matt Markham is Chief Inspector at West Midlands Police and the Head of Press and PR. The common excuse given by public bodies for excessive spending on press offices is to say it’s needed to help the media. As I document in The Silent State, nothing could be further from the truth. PR exists for control purposes, to hinder, rather than to inform, and this is a fine example.

Public officials also often complain about the irresponsibility of the press. Yet here we see a responsible reporter who writes stories based on facts and in the public interest being frozen out of a press conference precisely because of the strength of his journalism, by a police force already accused of misleading the public with false information.

It is entirely too common for public officials like Matt Markham to believe they don’t have to account for themselves and their organisation to the public. Mr Markham’s refusal to answer Paul’s questions isn’t just an insult to a good reporter, it’s an insult to all the people who pay Mr Markham’s wage and in whose name he is supposedly working. By keeping silent and refusing to answer important questions that people have a right to know he has shown the absolute contempt with which West Midlands Police views its citizens.

Sadly, this is not unusual. Too many public servants refuse to account to the public directly. And too often journalists collude in protecting this corrupt system of secrecy. Journalists need to blow the lid on this lack of accountability. If press officers want to insist they are the only conduit for official information but can’t be bothered to respond to serious questions then they need to be named and shamed.

Article: The courts are open but justice is a closed book

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

The courts are open but justice is a closed book
The Times, 28 July 2010

By Heather Brooke

We are denied even the barest details of what goes on in supposedly public legal proceedings

Last week I had an encounter with open justice. I was attending the Information Tribunal hearing of a friend who is trying to peel back layers of secrecy surrounding allegations that the Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust had a history of silencing whistleblowing staff by offering them public money to sign confidentiality or ‘gagging’ contracts.

I’ve been to the Tribunal before when I was fighting for the release of MPs’ expenses and that’s when I discovered the only record of proceedings of this so-called “open” people’s court (the Tribunals are meant to be a less formal, more accessible form of justice) were my scribbled notes. When it came time to write a script for a dramatised version of the hearing my notes and those of other reporters were all we had to go on. I’d asked at the time if I could tape record the hearing and was told “no”.

This time I decided to press harder. The rhetoric of the English legal system is that justice must be seen to be done so why are the public forbidden – under threat of jail – from recording a verbatim account of proceedings? Not only that, rules are so opaque and obscure that court reporters struggle to report cases with any degree of accuracy or depth. And that is when there is a reporter in court, which these days is a rarity – there used to be 25 reporters covering national courts for the Press Association; by 2009 there were only four.

We are paying nearly £1.5 billion for the court service plus £2.1billion for legal aid and the salaries of nearly 1000 senior judicial officers. It’s a high price, but to be honest not enough to adequately fund the system. However, if we’re going to invest in the judiciary it’s vital we understand where our money is going and receive some benefit for our considerable contribution. The least we might have is an account of proceedings held in open court.

Anisa Dhanji, the judge, said she was concerned with the hearing being recorded. ‘Usually such requests are made in advance so the tribunal can maintain the necessary degree of control over the transcript.’

“Control” is exactly what a court shouldn’t be exerting. Once it is decided that it is open, there should be no restriction on how that open hearing is processed. She went on to say that she’d allow me to record now but I’d have to wait for a future ruling before I could “use” the recording.

The next day in court the Judge announced she’d made her ruling.
“Please turn your tape recorder off,” she said, looking sternly at me over her glasses. I did so.
(more…)

A sharp focus on CCTV

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

I wrote an investigative piece about the actual effectiveness of CCTV for the May issue of Wired Magazine (published in April). I have reprinted it below or you can see it in its full glory on the Wired website.

Investigation: A sharp focus on CCTV
By Heather Brooke|01 April 2010

As the major political parties jostle for position in the run-up to the general election, it’s clear that the way the next government monitors and controls information about us will fundamentally shape British society in the next decades.

Both the Blair and Brown administrations have pursued policies of setting up giant, centralised databases, such as the national Automatic Number plate Recognition (ANPR) system, which tracks vehicles through an expanding network of cameras across Britain’s roads, and the massive communications register behind the Interception Modernisation Programme, intended to log all UK telephone and internet traffic.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have pledged to scrap the National Identity Register — a database that underlies the proposed ID card, which will store 50 items of personal information about every citizen — along with the children’s database, ContactPoint. (This extensive datastore, which was introduced after the Victoria Climbié inquiry in 2005, records every child’s name, gender, date of birth, address and parental contacts, along with educational and health details.) The Tories have also announced a scaling-back of the DNA database, in order to remove individuals who have never been convicted of a crime. Yet for all this maneuvering, the major parties have been uncharacteristically quiet on the most controversial of all the invasions of UK citizens’ privacy — CCTV.

Although it’s widely supposed that over the past decade there has been a significant increase in the number of surveillance cameras in the UK, it wasn’t until last year that hard numbers emerged via a Freedom of Information request. Big Brother Watch (bigbrotherwatch.org.uk), an anti-surveillance campaign group, found that the number of council-owned cameras had risen from 21,000 to 60,000 in less than ten years — equal to one CCTV camera for every 1,000 people in the country. Its report demonstrated a trebling of investment in local CCTV — even though Home Office research published in 2002 suggested that CCTV has a negligible impact on reducing crime.

Nevertheless, as public perception equates CCTV to tackling crime and antisocial behaviour, most MPs are happy to show up to the unveiling of a new surveillance system in their constituencies. The UK has more CCTV cameras per capita than any European country, yet figures released in July 2009 by the European Commission and United Nations showed Britain’s recorded rate of violent crime surpassed any other country in Europe. Does CCTV do anything to make us safer? If so, at what cost?
(more…)

Bureaucrats and Blackmailers

Friday, January 1st, 2010

Over Christmas I happened to catch the Orson Welles Sketchbook broadcast December 26th on BBC4. Welles may have been speaking decades ago, but his message couldn’t be more pertitent to today. He disccuses state surveillance, police powers and blackmailing bureaucrats.

You can watch it here: http://bbc.co.uk/i/plbtd/

Welles relates stories from his travels around the globe dealing with border police and bureaucracy in general. He longs for his father’s day when people had free movement as opposed to, “nowdays [when] we’re treated like demented or delinquent children.” What on earth would he make of modern-day Britain, the most watched place on the planet?

He tells of being stopped at the border of a nameless European country by typically officious and bullying policemen. He’s at pains to tell us he is by no means an anarchist or against the police. He may play a practical joke on the police but he does not advocate breaking the law. Rather he wants to bring the policeman to law.

The best bits begin 9 minutes in where he explores the insidious dangers of ‘red tapism’.
“Think of all those forms we have to fill out. Why should I have to confide my religion to the police? No one’s race is anybody’s business.”

Yes the policeman has a difficult job a very hard job, he says, but, “it’s the essence of our society that the policemans’ job should be hard. He’s their to protect the free citzien. Chasing criminals is an incidental part of his job. The free citizen is always more of a nuisance to the policeman than the criminal. He knows what to do about the criminal.”

“We should be grateful for the policeman. But we should be grateful, too, for the laws that protect us against the policeman. There are those laws and they’re quite different from police regulations. And those regulations do pile up. The forms keep coming in.”

“The bureaucrat, and I’m including the policeman here, is part of one great big monstrous thing – really like a blackmailer. You can never pay him off. The more you give him the more he’ll demand.”

We accept each new demand because we don’t want to get into trouble with the police. It’s easier just to hand over whatever new piece of our personal lives the authorities require, to agree to yet more surveillance, more forms, more databases; to grant the police more powers of arrest.

Why should we make trouble? A better question in a democracy would be, as Welles says, “Why should the policeman make trouble for us?”

Public locked out: FOI won’t cover private prisons

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Despite being paid for by the public, prisons operated under government contract by private companies such as Group 4 will not be covered by a proposed extension of the freedom of information act. This marks a dangerous shift in which public services paid for by us are no longer accountable to us because they have been outsourced to a private company.

This was re-stated in a minister’s written answer yesterday in parliament.
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmhansrd/cm091110/text/91110w0010.htm


10 Nov 2009 : Column 218W

Prisons: Freedom of Information

Philip Davies: To ask the Secretary of State for Justice whether he has plans to extend to private prisons the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. [298646]

Mr. Wills: On 16 July, the Government published the response to its consultation on extending the Freedom of Information Act by means of a section 5 order. It noted that it was not minded to include private prisons in an initial order. However, the Government have made it clear it intends to keep the extension of the Act under review.

Hidden High Court Injuctions

Friday, October 16th, 2009

The Twitter vs Trafigura case continues though it really is the Guardian newspaper and Wikileaks who have been driving this amazing story that illustrates the total lack of freedom of expression granted to the citizens of Britain.

For those who haven’t been following the case: The Guardian was attempting to report on Trafigura, a multi-national oil and commodity trader, but received legal threats from Carter-Ruck. This led to an injunction stopping them from publishing their findings. Yet not only were they prevented from publishing their article but the injunction also prevented them from reporting about the injunction!

These ‘superinjunctions’ are an incredibly draconian power and in a strong democracy they would only be used as a last resort in the most limited of circumstances – and when used this would be public knowledge. However, it now transpires that not only are these injunctions granted by judges with seemingly not a second thought for open justice, but there is no record of the judge’s actions either.

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Bridget Prentice said yesterday, in answer to a written Parliamentary question that the information is not currently available and the High Court has no intention to collate such data:

Paul Farrelly MP: To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will (a) collect and (b) publish statistics on the number of non-reportable injunctions issued by the High Court in each of the last five years. [293012]

Bridget Prentice: The information requested is not available. The High Court collects figures on applications, however injunctions are not separately identifiable, and there are currently no plans to amend databases to do so.

I agree with wikileaks: “Time for UK journalists grow some balls and start violating censorship injunctions”

It is bad enough that superinjunctions exist at all, but it is absolutely appalling that there are not even records kept of how often they are used. Pressure needs to be put on the High Court to record these occasions, and make the details public as a matter of urgency.