Archive for the ‘Freedom of Information’ Category

Two sides of online censorship

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

Communications minister Ed Vaizey recently commented on the planned additions to the EU data protection directive saying changes need to be both “practical and proportionate”. The additions focus on the right to be forgotten online, particularly for users of social networking sites. That could require websites to delete data held about individuals and inform people how their personal information is handled.

Vaizey says he’s concerned the directive could give people false expectations, saying: ‘No government can guarantee that photos shared with the world will be deleted by everyone when someone decides it’s time to forget.’ The minister is worried that implementing revisions could “stifle innovation”, although he doesn’t explain how allowing users to control their personal information could result in hindering international business development.

Internet users do need more information about how their data is stored and used – and that should be readily provided by website owners – but giving individuals a right to delete personal data from the internet is obviously the more contentious point, perhaps stemming from an idea that people will use a right to be forgotten to edit personal history to the detriment of free speech.

Interestingly, Vaizey is also one of the main players in the proposed ‘Great Firewall of Britain’, a self-regulatory scheme which would allow the government to block websites that music and film companies accuse of copyright infringement. Several civil liberties groups, including The Open Rights Group (ORG), have raised concerns that this could lead to a heavy-handed approach resulting in excessive legal claims and censorship of legitimate material.

Jim Killock of ORG called this proposal a backdoor private arrangement between the government and rights-holders without the scrutiny that judges or a formal act of parliament would require. The democracy of the scheme is certainly called into question – who will decide which sites can be blocked and why? Who will oversee these decisions to make sure they are democratic? It seems that ISPs would be allowed to blacklist censored sights with no judicial review.

Vaizey is concerned that implementing a right to be forgotten could stifle innovation. But the proposed firewall has been accused of leading to a situation where censorship could be done at will. The message seems to be that giving individuals the right to block or delete online is dangerous, while large corporations and the state can go right ahead.

New surveillance code could ‘enhance’ CCTV

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

The Home Office has released a consultation document outlining a code of practice that could require local authorities and police forces to reveal the locations of all CCTV and number plate recognition cameras on the auspices of addressing citizens’ concerns about state intrusion into private life.

Surveillance cameras in privately owned areas such as car parks and shopping centres will not be covered but the Home Office “hopes” these organisations will see the benefits of adopting the code.

Despite this apparent concern for state surveillance, if not private surveillance, the government is still working on higher resolution, discrete digital cameras with powerful zoom potential and 360 degree vision, which could be combined with facial recognition software in the future. The consultation states:

Our approach to establishing a new regulatory framework is therefore intended to provide a means through which public confidence in CCTV, ANPR, and other such systems, is improved by ensuring that there is proper transparency and proportionality in their use. We also aim to ensure that the considerable investment in technologies such as CCTV yields worthwhile returns by ensuring that they are operated as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Could it be this sudden interest in our civil liberties is less significant that ensuring ‘worthwhile returns’?

Prince Andrew: Time to go

Monday, March 7th, 2011

“The gas can be turned up and the gas can be turned down,” the minister said, but stressed there was no question of removing the prince. “The royals go on, that is what they do,” he said.

This was said not about the Saudi royal family in light of the pro-democracy movements sweeping the Middle East, rather they are the words of a UK cabinet minister speaking about the British royal family in today’s newspapers. The power the Royal family wield and the public money they claim is entirely a matter for their own discretion. Prince Andrew apparently cannot be sacked from his ‘voluntary role’ at the UK Trade & Investment government agency despite becoming a national embarrassment with his cosy meetings with despots and criminals.

Former Foreign Minister Chris Bryant tried to raise the issue of Prince Andrew’s position and lack of accountability on the floor of the House of Commons. “Isn’t it time we dispensed with the services of the Duke of York?” he asked.

Amazingly he was scolded by the Speaker John Bercow for daring to ask this much-needed question:

“References to members of the Royal Family should be very rare, very sparing and very respectful. We have to be very careful in our handling of these matters.”

Do we? Why? Are we living in Thailand where it is illegal to criticise the Royal Family? Or Brunei where the Constitution states “His Majesty the Sultan can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity” and further admonishes that “No person shall publish or reproduce in Brunei or elsewhere any part of proceedings that may have the effect of lowering or adversely affecting directly or indirectly the position, dignity, standing, honour, eminence or sovereignty of His Majesty the Sultan”. It seems Prince Andrew shares a similar standing to the Sultan in John Bercow’s mind.

It is remarkable we know as much as we do about Prince Andrew’s activities as the Royal family are protected from public accountability by law. Last May in the wash-up of government an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act was pushed through granting the royal family an absolute exemption from the public’s right to know. Even before this, the Royals were not covered by the law directly. Instead the public had a limited right to make FOIs to public bodies about royal funding and lobbying of public officials. Now even that minimal level of accountability has been eliminated.

This is a travesty. As long as the royal family can cream off public money and influence public policy all without any form of public accountability then we are subjects not citizens and in no position to lecture anyone about democracy.

Universities need to lift the lid on donations

Friday, March 4th, 2011

Sir Howard Davies resigned as director of the London School of Economics council last night due to controversial links between the LSE and Libyan money. An inquiry headed by Lord Woolf will now investigate the links between LSE and Gaddafi, including a £1.5 million donation from Saif Gaddafi – who was awarded a now-contested PhD by the university in 2008.

In a statement Sir Howard said:

The short point is that I am responsible for the School’s reputation, and that has suffered…There was nothing substantive to be ashamed of in that work and I disclosed it fully, but the consequence has been to make it more difficult for me to defend the institution.

The inquiry is also to establish future guidelines for internal donations to the university. The university was forced to admit they had also signed a £2.2 million contract with Libya to train civil servants for the country, over half of which has been received from Gaddafi’s regime, which slightly dampens Sir Howard’s protestations over disclosure.

Sadly, this case is indicative of the behind-closed-doors policy that many academic institutions have when it comes to funding. If information about donations is more transparent, potentially embarrassing revelations are wiped out. The public gets to see where the money is coming from, and university bigwigs retain their integrity – it isn’t difficult for anyone to “defend the institution” if the information is there for everyone to see from the outset.

Who owns patient records?

Friday, March 4th, 2011

The proposed Heath and Social Care bill has certainly got temperatures raised at the British Medical Association, not least because the organisation claims that the new legislation could threaten the confidentiality of patient medical records.

As the BMA point out, the bill would give bodies including the Commissioning Board, the NHS Information Centre, and the Secretary of State broader powers to access confidential information, but provides little guidance on how this power could be wielded, who could potentially have access to the records in the future, or how it will be safeguarded.

The BMA’s main concern seems to be that patients may withhold information from doctors if they become concerned for their privacy. Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA’s head of science and ethics, recently said that the government had placed its desire for access to information over the need to respect patient confidentiality, adding:

There is very little reference to rules on patient confidentiality that would ensure patients are asked before their information is shared or guarantee that the patient’s identity will not be revealed. Fears that their data may be shared with others may result in patients withholding important information; this may not only affect their own health but has implications for the wider health service.

There has never been a level playing field when it comes to accessing medical records and data. Back in 2006 Dr Foster Intelligence was given exclusive access to NHS data in an agreement with the DoH – and it seems any big pharmaceutical companies with deep enough pockets can lay their hands on this supposedly sacred information (see this blog post on Dr Foster by journalist Robert Munro).

The BMA has voiced support for the use of anonymised data for “secondary health purposes” but maintains that identifiable information should not be disclosed unless patients give explicit consent. The Department of Health has said that the bill does not change any of the existing legal safeguards, “which are set out in the Data Protection Act and the common law of confidence.”

You can track the progress of the Bill on the British Medical Association website.

Anonymity and the Arms Trade

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

The UK’s role in selling arms to the Middle East is again in the spotlight. This excerpt from ‘The Silent State’ published this week in Open Rights Group’s online magazine goes into some of the reasons why having a public debate in Britain about our arms industry is nearly impossible due to a chronic lack of information.

While the state likes to keep all private citizens under surveillance, getting a staff directory of public officials is still all but impossible. The excerpt below from Chapter 4 of the book, tells the story of one reporter’s battle – the Guardian’s Rob Evans – for the staff directory of the department charged with granting arms export licenses.

Anonymity & the arms trade
Rob Evans wanted the staff directory of the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO), a hived-off part of the Ministry of Defence, which spends taxpayer money helping UK arms companies (predominantly BAE Systems) win contracts for the export of armaments. He wanted it for several reasons.

‘We were hearing a lot of allegations about corruption within DESO in relation to the arms industry,’ Rob told me. ‘The problem was you had to find out if the employee alleged to be accepting bribes from an arms company actually worked for DESO. There was no way to tell. In the absence of a staff directory we had to resort to, well, subterfuge. It was done in the public interest but in my view that’s wrong. Why should we have had to resort to subterfuge? All public officials should be named.’

The Data Protection Act is often used in the most ludicrous ways: reporters’ bylines blacked out and ministers’ names censored. If you’re a public official then suddenly your privacy rights are sacrosanct. DESO and the Ministry of Defence were none too keen to provide Rob with a copy of the directory, so from his desk at Guardian newspapers he filed a freedom-of-information request in January 2005.

The directory lists staff names, job titles, work addresses, work telephone numbers and email addresses. In February he received a ‘redacted’ or, in plain English, censored version. And when I say censored I mean heavily. You’ve likely seen the ‘redacted’ MPs’ expenses, but imagine something even more gratuitous. What Rob received was a staff directory with all the names of staff together with all their contact details removed. Even the main switchboard number was blacked out! Only titles remained and for staff based in Saudi Arabia even these were excised. As a staff directory it was pretty much useless, particularly if your purpose was to track staff movement through the revolving door that exists between DESO and the arms industry and vice versa.

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Council survey causes privacy concern

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

A survey issued by Wiltshire Council has stirred up a privacy debate in the local community, as it asks questions about resident’s sexuality, debt levels and qualifications.

According to the Salisbury Journal, the document has been sent out to 26,500 households across the county “to help the council develop its housing and planning policy” to provide affordable housing in the area.

The council said responses will be anonymous, but campaign group Privacy International has advised people not to fill out the form at all. PI’s Alexander Hanff told the BBC:

Questions about sexual orientation [and] how much money you have in the bank are highly personal questions…They’re asking for far too much data with far too much variants and this is an issue, and a         concern, from a privacy perspective.

Oddly, the council’s service director for economy and enterprise said, “all this stuff is actually getting cleansed before we get the data”.
Data cleansing usually involves verifying collected information and discarding any data that is out of date, but it’s unclear what is being done to the surveys. The council also claims they are required by law to ask about sexual orientation, but what law this is they don’t say.

The council expects 6,000 completed surveys, so it will be interesting to see how many are submitted after the concerns raised.

A World of Wikileaks

Friday, December 10th, 2010

The global publicity resulting from the publication of the US diplomatic cables in the Guardian, New York Times, Wikileaks and other newspapers during the past two weeks has focused attention on the power of leaking.

Now several new operations are joining the fray by offering wikileaks-type portals.

Yesterday, Brussels Leaks was set up by anonymous founders, who cited WikiLeaks as its inspiration. The site welcomes tips-offs, files, and other disclosures about issues of social, environmental or political importance in Europe.

They say:

Having worked in Brussels for a long while now in various capacities we know (as anyone who works in political fields in Brussels for a short space of time) that plenty of big decisions are made on the basis of individual whims, be it whims shaped through connections to lobby groups, consultants or NGOs. Not all are bad, of course, but we’ve heard about a lot of decisions made based on questionable sources of information…There are plenty of good people in powerful positions who too often see shocking information pass them by. How do we know this? We’ve been there.

Another site that has been in the works for some time is Openleaks which is spearheaded by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who split from WikiLeaks in September after clashing with founder Julian Assange. I interviewed Daniel in September for my book and he outlined to me this new site which would de-centralise the publication of leaks.

Openleaks will allow leakers to anonymously submit information to a secure online drop box. The site won’t publish the information itself but will allow leakers to specify their preferred publication outlets whether that be through the media, trade union or an NGO. This is a good plan as it is through the centralised publication and the identifiable figurehead of Julian Assange that Wikileaks is most vulnerable.

Russian political activist and blogger Alexei Navalny, has set up his own whistleblowing site. Interestingly, Assange was dismissive of Chinese activists who hoped to set up a WikiLeaks type project in that country. He told Forbes magazine:

It’s not something that’s easy to do right…We encouraged them to come to us to work with us. It would be nice to have more Chinese speakers working with us in a dedicated way. But what they’d set up had no meaningful security. They have no reputation you can trust. It’s very easy and very dangerous to do it wrong.

If you know of any other Wikileaks inspired sites then do let me know.

Article: The Revolution will be Digitised

Friday, December 10th, 2010

WikiLeaks: The revolution has begun – and it will be digitised
Guardian, 29 November 2010
By Heather Brooke

The web is changing the way in which people relate to power, and politics will have no choice but to adapt too.

Diplomacy has always involved dinners with ruling elites, backroom deals and clandestine meetings. Now, in the digital age, the reports of all those parties and patrician chats can be collected in one enormous database. And once collected in digital form, it becomes very easy for them to be shared.

Indeed, that is why the Siprnet database – from which these US embassy cables are drawn – was created in the first place. The 9/11 commission had made the remarkable discovery that it wasn’t sharing information that had put the nation’s security at risk; it was not sharing information that was the problem. The lack of co-operation between government agencies, and the hoarding of information by bureaucrats, led to numerous “lost opportunities” to stop the 9/11 attacks. As a result, the commission ordered a restructuring of government and intelligence services to better mimic the web itself. Collaboration and information-sharing was the new ethos. But while millions of government officials and contractors had access to Siprnet, the public did not.

But data has a habit of spreading. It slips past military security and it can also leak from WikiLeaks, which is how I came to obtain the data. It even slipped past the embargoes of the Guardian and other media organisations involved in this story when a rogue copy of Der Spiegel accidentally went on sale in Basle, Switzerland, on Sunday. Someone bought it, realised what they had, and began scanning the pages, translating them from German to English and posting updates on Twitter. It would seem digital data respects no authority, be it the Pentagon, WikiLeaks or a newspaper editor.

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WikiLeaks cables

Friday, December 10th, 2010

There’s been a distinct lack of posts on the blog by me. Turns out I have a good excuse. I’ve been busily working through the US diplomatic cables for the past few months and the fruits of that labour began appearing last week in The Guardian newspaper.

I’ll be posting a few of my directly authored pieces but in the meantime here is a podcast I did with Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Tony Blair. I’d just raced through the snow to get to the Guardian so my usual fast delivery is at warp speed. Have to remember to breathe…slow down.

Politics Weekly: Secrets and leaks

Jonathan Powell and I discuss WikiLeaks and how governments keep secrets in a digital age on the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast.