Military schools… the myths…

Today’s announcement that Labour supports bringing in state-funded military schools has provoked quite a lot of reaction – not least from me. I don’t like the idea, amongst other things because it seems to me to perpetuate three particularly damaging myths:

1) That ‘discipline’, ‘leadership’ and ‘aspiration’ are not really possible in ‘conventional’ comprehensive schools.

2) That ‘military-style’ discipline really works, particularly for disadvantaged kids.

3) That it’s possible to find a ‘quick fix’ to educational problems.

All three are attractive – particularly to the average Daily Mail reader – but all three are neither true nor helpful. The first denies the excellence of a lot of fine comprehensive schools, and panders to the false image of the state of current education put about largely by the media. It also suggests that there’s only one kind of comprehensive school – the ‘loose’, ‘indisciplined’ kind. In reality, every school is different, and you don’t need to impose new ‘types’ of school to get pluralism.

The second myth lies behind the regular suggestion that we should bring back National Service, the short-lived ‘short sharp shock’ youth prisons and so forth. It misses the key point: military discipline works well for some, terribly for others. Which kids would end up at military schools? The ones who would thrive? It doesn’t seem likely – if the children themselves has the choice, perhaps, but if their parents want them ‘shocked’ the consequences could be disastrous.

The third myth is the worst of all – if only life was so simple. It’s this myth that leads to the regular and deeply damaging political tinkering with our educational system. What’s needed isn’t another ‘great idea’ or new initiative, it’s proper support and decent investment in our schools. It’s fostering an atmosphere where teachers are valued and good and able students are encouraged to become the teachers of the future.

That means standing back. Stopping interfering. Supporting, not undermining schools. And, for goodness’ sake, no new types of schools… least of all the military schools!

The myth of technological ‘solutions’

A story on the BBC webpages caught my eye this morning: ‘the parcel conundrum‘. It described a scenario that must be familiar to almost everyone in the UK: you order something on the internet and then the delivery people mess up the delivery and all you end up with is a little note on the floor saying they tried to deliver it. Frustration, anger and disappointment ensue…

…so what is the ‘solution’? Well, if you read the article, we’re going to solve the problems with technology! The new, whizz-bang solutions are going to not just track the parcels, but track us, so they can find us and deliver the parcel direct to us, not to our unoccupied homes. They’re going to use information from social networking sites to discover where we are, and when they find us they’re going to use facial recognition software to ensure they deliver to the right person. Hurrah! No more problems! All our deliveries will be made on time, with no problems at all. All we have to do is let delivery companies know exactly where we are at all times, and give them our facial biometrics so they can be certain we are who we are.

Errr… could privacy be an issue here?

I was glad to see that the BBC did at least mention privacy in passing in their piece – even if they did gloss over it pretty quickly – but there are just one or two privacy problems here. I’ve blogged before about the issues relating to geo-location (here) but remember delivery companies often give 12 hour ‘windows’ for a delivery – so you’d have to let yourself be tracked for a long time to get the delivery. And your facial biometrics – will they really hold the information securely? Delete it when you’re found? Delivery companies aren’t likely to be the most secure or even skilled of operators (!) and their employees won’t always be exactly au fait with data protection etc – let alone have been CRB checked. It would be bad enough to allow the police or other authorities track us – but effectively unregulated businesses to do so? It doesn’t seem very sensible, to say the least…

…and of course under the terms of the Communications Data Bill (of which more below) putting all of this on the Internet will automatically mean it is gathered and retained for the use of the authorities, creating another dimension of vulnerability…

Technological solutions…

There is, however, a deeper problem here: a tendency to believe that a technological solution is available to a non-technological problem. In this case, the problem is that some delivery companies are just not very good – it may be commercial pressures, it may be bad management policies, it may be that they don’t train their employees well enough, it may be that they simply haven’t thought through the problems from the perspective of those of us waiting for deliveries. They can, however, ‘solve’ these problems just by doing their jobs better. A good delivery person is creative and intelligent, they know their ‘patch’ and find solutions when people aren’t in. They are organised enough to be able to predict their delivery times better. And so on. All the tracking technology and facial recognition software in the world won’t make up for poor organisation and incompetent management…

…and yet it’s far too easy just to say ‘here’s some great technology, all your problems will be solved’.

We do it again and again. We think the best new digital cameras will turn us into fantastic photographers without us even reading the manuals or learning to use our cameras (thanks the the excellent @legaltwo for the hint on that one!). We think ‘porn filters’ will sort out our parenting issues. We think web-blocking of the Pirate Bay will stop people downloading music and movies illegally. We think technology provides a shortcut without dealing with the underlying issue – and without thinking of the side effects or negative consequences. It’s not true. Technology very, very rarely ‘solves’ these kinds of problems – and the suggestion that it does is the worst kind of myth.

The Snoopers’ Charter

The Draft Communications Data Bill – the Snoopers’ Charter – perpetuates this myth in the worst kind of way. ‘If only we can track everyone’s communications data, we’ll be able to stop terrorism, catch all the paedos, root out organised crime’… It’s just not true – and the consequences to everyone’s privacy, just a little side issue to those pushing the bill, would be huge, potentially catastrophic. I’ve written about it many times before – see my submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights for the latest example – and will probably end up writing a lot more.

The big point, though, is that the very idea of the bill is based on a myth – and that myth needs to be exposed.

That’s not to say, of course, that technology can’t help – as someone who loves technology, enjoys gadgets and spends a huge amount of his time online, that would be silly. Technology, however, is an adjunct, not a substitute, to intelligent ‘real world’ solutions, and should be clever, targeted and appropriate. It should be a rapier rather than a bludgeon.

Annoyed by those cookie warnings?

…spread your anger!

I’m sure you know the warnings I’m talking about – at least you do if you’re in the European Union. Warnings that appear almost every time you look at a new page on the web, telling you that the site uses cookies, generally telling you that if you continue into the site, you’re accepting they’re going to put cookies on your computer.

Annoying, aren’t they? Patronising, perhaps? Pedantic? Pointless?

Yes, all of the above. The whole thing’s a bit silly, really. As many people who visit this blog probably realise, they’re appearing as a result of a bit of European law – often referred to as the ‘cookies directive’, but more accurately an update to the e-privacy directive (the Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications). An annoying piece of legislation, one which even before it was passed in 2009 had been subject to pretty intense criticism – and rightly so. The drafters of the legislation deserve a great deal of criticism and a good deal of anger – it’s a bit of a pig’s ear, to be frank. So should the politicians and bureaucrats who brought it into action. Typical European busybodies, I’ve heard it said. They want to control everything we do…

…and yet, deserving though they are of a lot of criticism, they’re not the only ones who should bear the brunt of the anger, of the annoyance. Legislation, even poorly drafted and misguided legislation, doesn’t emerge in a vacuum. That’s particularly true in the case of the cookies directive – it emerged, as most law does, because there was a problem. In this case, the problem was that our privacy was being invaded, persistently and on a large scale, particularly by those involved in the online advertising industry.

Those who follow my blog may have heard me write before about Phorm, perhaps the most invasive and offensive of the behavioural advertisers, whose systems were designed to intercept your entire internet activity, track you and profile you, so as to be able to target advertisements at you. Their activities were hugely invasive of privacy – so much so that the outrage that grew about it played a key part in forcing them to abandon their business – and yet the online advertising industry bodies supported them throughout and did their very best to discourage any kind of investigation into their activities.

The cookies directive – and all those annoying warnings – has its origins in that story. Whilst privacy advocates investigated and European politicians and bureaucrats tried to first of all find out what was happening and then try to work out some kind of solution, what they got from the industry was characterised by denial, obfuscation and obstruction. Either there wasn’t a problem at all, or it would be best solved by self-regulation. Neither of those were true – and the people, politicians and bureaucrats knew it. Their equivalents in the US know it too, which is why they’re still trying to get the ‘Do Not Track’ initiative off the ground – and in the US they’re receiving the same kind of resistance as they got in Europe.

Regulators don’t like being fobbed off. They don’t like being treated without respect, or told they’re being foolish – it’s not the best way to get useful, helpful and productive regulation. Instead, it’s likely to bring about bad law – stuff like the cookies directive. Yes, it’s a stupid law – but it would never have been brought into action if the online advertisers had admitted that there was a problem, and at least tried to do something about it. If they’d shown some degree of understanding first of all that people were upset, secondly that they had a reason to be upset, and thirdly that they should do something about it, then they might have been able to head off the legislative mess that has resulted. They didn’t.

It’s not an unusual story – there are parallels with the way the newspaper industry’s far-from effective self-regulation led to the Leveson Inquiry, and may end up in over-the-top regulation of the press. If you behave badly, and continue to behave badly even when people complain, things like that happen…. and you can’t just blame the regulators.

In the case of the cookies directive – and all those annoying warnings – the online advertising industry should take their share of your annoyance and anger…..