Archive for the ‘Freedom of Information’ Category

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.

Mozilla bringing back online privacy?

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

The makers of popular internet browser Firefox are attempting to implement a ‘do-not-track’ mechanism to prevent users being monitored online.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Mozilla had previously ‘killed’ a powerful new tool to limit online tracking after coming under pressure from the advertising industry. Mozilla claims the tool was scrapped out of concern advertisers would be forced to adopt ‘sneakier techniques’ and could slow down some websites.

Mike Shaver, vice president of engineering at Mozilla, told WSJ: “I wouldn’t say we are under pressure from advertisers. They are a big part of the economics of the Web. We want to understand what their needs are.”

The needs of advertisers are definitely well-understood by Mozilla, as their most recent financial statements reveal about $86 million of its $104 million in 2009 revenue came from an advertising agreement with Google.

Both Google and Microsoft are said to be awaiting details of a do-not-track proposal before they take a position. Apple has declined to comment on the matter. If the majority of commercial browsers refuse to make progress with online privacy then Mozilla’s announcement is more a toe-in-the-water than a step forward.

Public call for stronger data protection

Friday, November 26th, 2010

UK Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has handed out the first fines for breaches of the Data Protection Act saying they will “send a strong message” to those handling data.

The commissioner was given the ability to fine organisations up to £500,000 for breaching the Act earlier this year. Hertfordshire County Council was fined £100,000 for sending two faxes regarding a child sex abuse case to the wrong recipient. Sheffield-based company A4e was fined £60,000 after a computer containing the unencrypted data of 24,000 people was lost. Both incidents occurred in June.

In these cases, both organisations came forward of their own accord. In some American states such as California, revealing breaches such as this is mandatory The system in the UK is currently voluntary although a recent poll published by LogRhythm showed that 80 percent of people wanted more stringent laws regarding data breaches.

Out of the 5000 people surveyed, 31 percent even suggested that company directors should be subject to criminal proceedings. Many have welcomed the commissioner’s step towards protecting sensitive data. The Financial Times referred to Graham as a “privacy watchdog chief with a bite”, and noted that the announcement follows criticism of the ICO’s handing of the Google Street View data collection controversy.

Perhaps the ICO is trying to prove it is a watchdog with teeth.

Facebook rival Diaspora goes live

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

A “privacy aware” social network called Diaspora went live on Wednesday. It was founded earlier this year by four students from New York University who saw an opportunity for a new type of service to counter Facebook which has increasingly come under attack for its dubious privacy policy.

One of Diaspora’s founders, Maxwell Salzberg told the BBC: “We are going after the idea there are all these centralised services where people are giving up their personal information. We want to put users back in control of what they share.”

It’s refreshing to see a social network that doesn’t require individuals to hand over reams of private data but with Facebook’s 500 million members, is there a place for Diaspora? Although the company plans to roll out services gradually, subscription to the site is only available to a small number of invited users.

Salzberg says Diaspora, “is not just about Facebook. Facebook is not what we are going after.” But the founders will have to progress past the “baby steps” they outline in a blog post on the site if they want their privacy-championing project to challenge the status quo.

Taking action on privacy breaches

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

My new assistant Natalie Peck will be contributing to this blog in future. Here is her first post. Welcome to the blog Natalie!

This week, Britain’s information commissioner Christopher Graham announced he will finally start fining websites that breach people’s privacy.

Graham’s plans to “set the benchmark” for online data protection coincide with proposed regulations by the European Union for more stringent privacy measures, ensuring companies provide users with updates on how, why, by whom, and for how long their data is used.

Companies must also alert users to how then can delete all the information held on them if they decide to stop using a service. For example Facebook still holds photos, wall posts and other data long after an individual account has been deactivated.

Google has also been at the centre of the privacy debate, with recent revelations that the company collected wifi data during the controversial Streetview mapping of the UK. The company was recently accused of a “staggering” invasion of privacy by Conservative MP Mark Lancaster.

It’s one thing for the public’s privacy to be invaded but entirely another when that breach concerns a Member of Parliament. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) has sprung into action after MPs’ personal details were accidentally put at risk on the expenses database. The data included bank details, number plates and home phone numbers. The system’s admin account will now be regularly reviewed and implement further security measures.

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?’

‘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.

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.

Newsnight interview: Wikileaks

Friday, July 30th, 2010

I took part in a Newsnight interview to discuss the leak of Afghan War intelligence documents to whistleblower site Wikileaks. Adrian Lamo, the journalist who disclosed the source of the leak, also appeared.

Royal appetite for secrecy can only invite scandal

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Royal appetite for secrecy can only invite scandal
By Heather Brooke
Guardian, 25 May 2010

The exemption from scrutiny under Freedom of Information shows the status gap between crown and public interest

Where there’s secrecy, there’s scandal. The two certainly go hand in hand in the picture painted by the weekend’s News of the World video that shows Sarah Ferguson accepting a $40,000 briefcase of cash while promising that, for a £500,000 backhander, she would provide an introduction to trade envoy Prince Andrew.

Any claims by the royal family to distance themselves from these shady dealings are undermined by their aversion to transparency. Among the laws rushed through in the “wash-up” of the last government was a change to the Freedom of Information Act granting an absolute ban on all communications with the royal family and royal household. Prior to this such information was still exempt but if there was a public interest in the material, it had to be disclosed.

That exemption meant, for example, one could argue that, as the billpayer, the public has a right to know the detail of how the £7.9m from the civil list is spent, about the additional £15m spent to maintain the royal palaces, and the estimated £50m spent on royal security.

July will see the announcement of a new civil list settlement. There are rumours the royals are asking to double the amount to more than £15m. In the information blackout, facts are few and far between. We will only know the deal when it is done. As Graham Smith, campaign manager of the pressure group Republic, says: “We have no idea if these rumours are true. We aren’t allowed any information about what the palace is lobbying for, or on what grounds.”

Silent State manifesto goes mainstream

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

It’s not every day an author gets to hear her manifesto coming from the mouth of the incoming Deputy Prime Minister. That happened today when Nick Clegg virtually read out the conclusion of The Silent State (Manifesto for a New Democracy) as his Big Society speech.

Read the full text of the speech here. If you want to know in detail what’s going to be on the reform agenda clearly you need to read The Silent State!

Of course, what matters is action and we need to see a timetable for specific changes and reform. But if this rhetoric is anything to go by (and believe me I’m ever the sceptic) then action is expected before the summer recess. I am as full of political disillusionment as anyone and I have to say – this speech gave me hope. For the first time in a very long while.

Here are a few of today’s highlights:

Silent State: Trust the people. It is the people who give public servants their power and so it must be the people to whom they are accountable, directly and forthrightly – with no middlemen in between.
Nick Clegg: My starting point is always optimism about people. The view that most people, most of the time, will make the right decisions for themselves and their families. That you know better than I do about how to run your life, your community, the services you use. So this government is going to trust people.

Silent State: We should give no more power to the state without the state giving something to us.
Nick Clegg: We will repeal all of the intrusive and unnecessary laws that inhibit your freedom.

SS: Society has an interest in encouraging the efficient use and enforcement of freedom of information and making official information freely available to the public who paid for its creation and in whose name it is gathered.
NC: We will reform our politics so it is open, transparent, decent.

SS: Surveillance doesn’t make us safer. It turns citizens into suspects.
NC: Taking people’s freedom away didn’t make our streets safe.

SS: Make voting count
NC: New politics needs fairer votes.

Some other notable points taking up the Silent State philosophy:
‘We will radically redistribute power away from the centre, into your communities, your homes, your hands.’
On Lobbying: ‘that activity needs to be regulated properly and made transparent. Which we’ll do, for example, by introducing a a statutory register of lobbyists.’

All good stuff and a promising start to creating a more efficient and egalitarian democracy. I’m out to celebrate!