Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Manifesto for a New Democracy

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

I wrote this several years ago. It’s the last chapter of The Silent State but it’s remarkably relevent right now. I’ll be adding the manifesto points in the coming days.

Manifesto for a New Democracy
Who am I to put forward a manifesto? I’m not elected. I’m not accountable to any regulator. I’m just a freelance trouble- maker, a rabble-rouser, a nosey parker prying into the silent state, a writer with a love of novels that remind us just how close we are to realising their dystopian fears: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Tyler Durden asks in Fight Club to be delivered from Swedish furniture; I ask only:

  • Deliver us from officious officials.
  • Deliver us from prying bureaucrats who refuse to be named.
  • Deliver us from arrogant MPs who feel entitled to pilfer the public purse.
  • In a democracy, everyone has a right to propose ideas and it is in the roiling competition of these ideas that the best become policy and the weakest fall by the wayside. I am not a politician. I can’t compel people to give me money to implement my world view. I can’t imprison, fine or smear if you don’t buy my book or agree with me. I can’t siphon off public cash to create a huge PR industry to peddle my propaganda. I have no power other than the facts I’ve put forward in this book and the belief that if these stories are compelling then they might persuade a few people that our current system isn’t acceptable. Things need to change. Here’s how:

    1) We should give no more power to the state without the state giving something to us.

    Before the state can keep a database of our identities, aggregate our DNA or gather any other intrusive personal information, it should acknowledge that these measures do nothing whatsoever to empower ordinary citizens. We do not need millions of CCTV cameras turning citizens into suspects, nor every child entered into a database.

    2) Name all public officials. These people work for us.

    The state should publish its entire staff directory so we can see, by name, who is doing what at taxpayer expense.
    Throughout this book I’ve used the real names of real people. If you’re going to tell a story then you need to focus on an individual with a name. It’s through individuals that we are best able to gain understanding. Yet individuality is precisely what is lacking from the state. A faceless wall of bureaucracy has been built up that alienates citizen from state. If public servants are truly working for the public then we need to know who they are. Wherever we see ‘facts’ followed by anonymous officials, we should be sceptical. There should be no power exercised without accountability, ending the domination of behind-the-scenes spin doctors and strategists.

    This will benefit bureaucracies too. Throughout public services there are professionals with all sorts of expertise, all kinds of information. They have concerns about what works and what doesn’t and good ideas for improvement. But in the current anonymised, hierarchical structure these people have no voice. They are not listened to nor trusted and if they dare speak directly to the public they are penalised and often prosecuted. In the end the silent state hurts many for the benefit of an elite few.

    More points to come…

    They’re at it again. MP expenses

    Sunday, October 21st, 2012

    You couldn’t make it up. While the UK Transparency twitter feed was sending out gushing messages about Cabinet Minister Francis Maude’s latest open government agenda, Speaker John Bercow, in cahoots with Tory MP Julian Lewis, was trying a rear-guard action to keep MPs’ expenses secret. 

    You’d have thought Bercow might remember how his predecessor was brought low due to his obstinate stance on publishing expenses. But no. They’re at it again. Even a High Court ruling isn’t getting in their way. In 2008, MPs argued against my freedom of information request to disclose the full details of their second home allowance and address. They claimed such disclosure would endanger them. They had no proof. Just their own paranoid narcissism. Three of the nation’s top judges ruled in my favour saying that public accountability required the claims and addresses be published. Now some MPs are trying to subvert that ruling by stealth. The new broom, it seems, still has some sweeping to do. 

    I had a few words to say about it on Sky News.

    Who’s laughing now: Lulzsec & census leak

    Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

    Update: Hacking collective Lulzsec have claimed the posting with their logo was not an ‘official’ hack by them but may have been the work of others getting on board their #AntiSec campaign. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/jun/21/lulzsec-census-2011-denial-twitter

    Back in April I reported for the BBC’s Daily Politics show about the UK Census and why it was not only a waste of money as the data would already be outdated by the time it was useable, but also a security breach waiting to happen.

    Yesterday, Lulz Security (LulzSec) a hacking group who describe themselves as “the world’s leaders in high-quality entertainment at your expense”, apparently claimed to have committed such a security breach, with an announcement posted on Pastebin of the acquisition of records of “every single citizen” who filled in the Census form. The anonymous hackers claimed they would reformat the data and make it available via The Pirate Bay.

    Yesterday, LulzSec’s twitterfeed stated:

    “Your tax money is being used to pay for things to not be secured so that people like us can take what you expect to be kept inaccessible.”

    The group have previously released the X Factor contestants database and information from Fox.com and Sonypictures.com on their website.

    The Met Police have confirmed reports that a 19-year-old they claim is one of the hackers behind LulzSec has been arrested in Wickford, Essex, though the group deny he was a leader.

    The Office for National Statistics issued a weasely and vague statement that reveals some of the technical incompetence of this government organization. It seems they don’t even know whether or not they’ve been hacked:

    We are aware of the suggestion that census data has been accessed. We are working with our security advisers and contractors to establish whether there is any substance to this. The 2011 Census places the highest priority on maintaining the security of personal data. At this stage we have no evidence to suggest that any such compromise has occurred.

    To re-state the obvious. The only way information is truly secure is to not keep it in the first place. The Census should only have collected the absolute minimum needed to perform its function and most of this data was already available to government. Creating a central database of all UK citizen’s personal data (including their religion, race and sexual orientation) has served only to provide a convenient one-stop shop for miners of our personal information.

    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.

    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’?

    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.

    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.

    Newsnight: Tony Blair and FOI

    Friday, September 3rd, 2010

    I appeared on BBC Newsnight debating Tony Blair’s claim in his memoirs that in introducing the Freedom of Information Act he was a “naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop”.

    My opponent was the pugnacious John Prescott.