Woolwich and the case against the Snoopers’ Charter!

Some have suggested that Woolwich is a reason to resurrect the Communications Data Bill – the Snoopers’ Charter. Indeed, not only have the usual authoritarian suspects on all sides of the political field – Theresa May for the Tories, Lord Reid for Labour and Lord Carlile for the Lib Dems – spoken in favour of the resurrection of the Snooper’s Charter, but the latest suggestion is that Ed Miliband would be willing to help the Tories bring in the bill, even in the face of the planned opposition by the Liberal Democrats.

That, to me, is not only worrying but very foolish. The tragic and hideous events of Woolwich do not make the case for the Snoopers’ Charter. Indeed, precisely the opposite: they make a stronger case against the Snoopers’ Charter. They support the position taken by opponents of the Snooper’s Charter. What we need isn’t the clumsy bludgeon of universal surveillance – we need the sharp rapier of targeted and intelligent surveillance.

Would the Snoopers’ Charter have stopped the tragedy at Woolwich? No!

This much seems entirely clear. The perpetrators of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby were, from almost all accounts, known to the authorities. The intelligence services didn’t need the Snoopers’ Charter to find them – and the powers envisaged in the Snoopers’ Charter would not have helped stop them either.

Would these powers help the authorities catch co-conspirators and connections of the perpetrators? Again, this seems far from likely – and the apparent successes by the authorities in tracking down others connected with the events suggest that it wasn’t lack of information that prevented the discovery of the murderous plan – or that they would be necessary in order to uncover anything more that was needed. Indeed, the alternatives to the Snoopers’ Charter approach that have been suggested by myself and many other opponents of the Snoopers’ Charter would if anything be more effective.

The Snoopers’ Charter is counterproductive

As noted above, the Snoopers’ Charter would not have been any help in preventing the tragedy at Woolwich – nor in pursuing or prosecuting the perpetrators and their co-conspirators. In fact, it might well be precisely the opposite, for at least two important reasons.

The first of these is that it has been a distraction, and a waste of time and resources. According to some accounts upwards of half a billion has already been spent on preparing the way for the bill – and a huge amount more is planned to be spent. The estimates of £1.8 billion put forward by the Home Office were condemned by the Parliamentary Committee examining the bill as speculative at best: the real cost would be likely to be far more. All that money, effort and time could have been spent on better, more intelligent and more effective methods – and if plans go ahead for the full-scale Snoopers’ Charter, as Theresa May and others are still proposing, even more time, effort, money and energy will be wasted in the future.

The second is that by pursuing this approach, the proponents of the Snoopers’ Charter have delayed the chance of getting some real, positive and effective powers to investigate and fight terrorism and so forth. RIPA – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act that currently governs communications interception and related powers does need updating – but the overreach of those behind the Snoopers Charter meant that they didn’t get that update. They asked for too much – so got nothing at all. What’s more, if they continue to push for the full-scale version, the universal surveillance model, people like me will continue to resist, continue to do our best to delay and block movements towards this kind of thing.

People like me aren’t the enemies of law enforcement – the opposite…

It is often suggested – particularly by Theresa May – that people like me, people who do their best to block or stymie attempts to bring about universal internet surveillance, are somehow the enemies of law enforcement, or even that we have blood on our hands. With the tragic death of Drummer Lee Rigby it’s highly likely that similar suggestions, or at the very least similar hints will be made. Not only are such suggestions highly manipulative and in many ways very offensive, they’re also entirely inaccurate. We’re not – precisely the opposite. We’re very much the friends of law enforcement – and if our ideas were listened to a little more, rather than their being caricatured as somehow ‘anti-law enforcement’, that might be seen.

How can this be? Well, first of all, we’re pointing out genuine flaws in the way that the proposals have been put together. Amongst all the other things, the Snoopers’ Charter proposals won’t actually work – at least not in the way ‘working’ is being presented. They won’t prevent terrorism – or events like the Woolwich murder. They won’t make it easier to catch terrorists or criminals of the sort that perpetrate those kinds of atrocities. We already have as good tools to do that as we can have – because, sadly, whatever system you have, some people will slip through the net. Some atrocities will happen – and we need to be honest enough to admit it. The Snoopers’ Charter won’t stop that – indeed, it would be supremely ineffective at doing that. All it will do is catch innocents and incompetents – and restrict the civil liberties and crucial freedoms of the rest of us at the same time. The incompetents will be caught whatever happens – and the rest of us should have freedom, if our ‘free’ society is to mean anything.

Secondly, the kinds of proposals that those of us who oppose the Snoopers’ Charter have made would be more efficient and effective – particularly in terms of resources. Use targeted, intelligence based surveillance, not universal, unintelligent surveillance. That’s what could have worked better here: the people concerned had already been identified, so any intelligent, targeted system could have been applied to them.

Where do we go from here?

Woolwich should be a wake up call – but not a wake up call to tell us to go again for the Snoopers’ Charter. The opposite. It should wake people up to the need for a proper, intelligence based, targeted rather than universal surveillance. An updated RIPA that is more focussed rather than broader. Limit the powers that can be misused – but tighten and modernise those which are properly focused and have the checks and balances that are necessary. Look at this with intelligence – and not only do civil liberties benefit but the intelligence services could too.

The problem is, as I have blogged recently, it’s very easy to have a knee-jerk reaction and produce bad, inappropriate and ineffective legislation. Any attempt to revive the Snoopers’ Charter would be exactly that. We should avoid that at all costs.

Terrorism and knee-jerk legislation…

The hideous events in Woolwich are already provoking a huge amount of reaction – strong, intense, often very passionate reaction. Understandably so. I don’t want to go into that, for a whole lot of reasons. One reaction, however, I think we need to be very wary of: allowing our shock and horror at the events to allow us to bring in oppressive and counter-productive ‘counter-terrorism’ legislation.

It has happened before, most notably with the Data Retention Directive, described by Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor, as the EU’s most privacy invasive tool, which was passed shortly after the London 7/7 bombings, and even mentions those bombings in its preamble. Already, there have been a number of people hinting that these events in Woolwich mean that we should bring back the Communications Data Bill (the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’). For me, those calls should be resisted, and resisted strongly.

Apart from the obvious need to take time to reflect on these things (knee-jerk reactions of any kind are generally to be avoided), the question of whether it’s right to regard an individual murder of any kind, no matter how gruesome, as ‘terrorism’, the question of whether any kind of surveillance would have picked out the kind of person who carries out such brutality, and other direct and important information that we have yet to discover, it’s crucial to remember that the objections to legislation like the Communications Data Bill still hold true.

Surveillance is rarely just about terrorism

Terrorism is often used as the trigger for this kind of legislation and the ‘excuse’ for this kind of surveillance – because terrorism always provokes an emotional reaction, and provokes fear (that’s really the point of it – hence the name) and when people are afraid they’re more likely to accept authoritarianism. The surveillance then brought in won’t actually be used for terrorism that much – and when you look closely at the legislation that always becomes clear. In the Data Retention Directive, though it mentions the London bombings in the preamble, actually allows member states to use the powers granted for any kind of ‘serious crime’ that they want. In the UK, for example, that would include fraud, and hence benefit fraud and so forth. It may seem a huge leap from terrorism to benefit fraud – and it should – but in the legislation, that’s what happens. The Communications Data Bill was written in just the same kind of way – though Theresa May talked about terrorism, the powers granted could have been used for pretty much anything by a wide range of authorities.

We don’t even know if this kind of surveillance works

Peter Hustinx has at various times challenged those behind the Data Retention Directive to give some kind of evidence that the intensely privacy-invasive powers granted by it had actually produced results. Many of those of us questioning the people putting forward the Communications Data Bill to do the same – and none has been provided. We really don’t know whether it works – and for people to suggest that it would stop atrocities like that which happened in Woolwich is speculative at best.

Indeed, the evidence presented to the Parliamentary committee that scrutinised the Communications Data Bill almost all suggested that this kind of surveillance wouldn’t work – that it would only catch the innocent and the incompetent. The innocent shouldn’t be caught, and the incompetent would be caught anyway, by more conventional means.

A distraction from conventional policing

…and therein lies another of my concerns about the knee-jerk techno-legislative approach of the Communications Data Bill. What helped in Woolwich was conventional policing – and a lot of bravery. Right now, when some people are pushing for more hi-tech surveillance, the government is cutting conventional police numbers and police resources – and appears to be working towards at least piecemeal privatisation of the police, giving more contracts to G4S and Serco. For me, the resources that might be spent on the Communications Data Bill (the conservative estimate of £1.8 billion was roundly criticised by the committee – it could be much more) would be better spent on conventional policing, on conventional intelligence – and on avoiding the risks of privatisation.

No knee-jerk reactions

The latter is a bit of a political point, and not perhaps the most important. The most important, however, is to be patient, to be intelligent, and not to allow ourselves to be drawn into knee-jerk reactions. In legislative terms, knee-jerk reactions generally produce bad law – ineffective at best, counter-productive at worst. In the current political climate this is a particular risk.

That’s what makes you bigoted…

…with apologies to One Direction, and anyone with any taste in music….


You’re insecure
I know what for
You turn your head as you walk through the do-o-or
Don’t need to stop
You know what’s what
Being the way that you are is enough
Everyone else in the room offends you
Everyone not like you
Oh you darken my world like nobody else
The way you talk of my life gets me overwhelmed
And when you scowl at my face it ain’t hard to tell
You don’t know, oh oh, you don’t know you’re bigoted
If only you could see things the way we can see
You’d understand why we want this so desperately
Right now I’m looking at you and you don’t believe
You don’t know, oh oh, you don’t know you’re bigoted
That’s what makes you bigoted
Na na na na na na na na na
Na na na na na na na
Na na na na na na na na na
Na na na na na na na
So c-come on
You’ve got it wrong
To prove I’m right I put it in a song
I do know why
I know just why
You turn away when I look into your eye eye eyes
Everyone else in the room offends you
Everyone not like you
Oh they mess up your world like nobody else
The way that they flip their hair gets you overwhelmed
And when you scowl at each face it ain’t hard to tell
You don’t know, oh oh, you don’t know you’re bigoted
If only you could see things the way we can see
You’d understand why we want things so desperately
Right now I’m looking at you and you don’t believe
You don’t know, oh oh, you don’t know you’re bigoted
You don’t know, oh oh, you don’t know you’re bigoted
You don’t know, oh oh, you don’t know you’re bigoted
That’s what makes you bigoted

Sorry…… and if you want to see the real One Direction song this is based on, watch this….

A few words on equality…

Back in the 80s, I was a young accountant working in the City, for what was then one of the very biggest firms of accountants in the UK. This was the height of Thatcherism, where greed and selfishness were pretty much de rigueur – when an incident happened to me that has had a permanent effect on me. I was an auditor, working in the financial sector – so yes, the heart of that selfishness and greed – and was told, along with all my cohorts, that if I had a good ‘busy season’, I’d be promoted. Well, I had a good busy season – indeed, a great busy season – which was fully acknowledged by the firm, but I still didn’t get promotion. They told me that no-one had got promotion – we were going through a merger at the time, so we all pretty much accepted it… at least until we discovered that it wasn’t true, and that one person had got that promotion. As might be imagined, I was pretty annoyed – and being the kind of person I was, I started digging a bit deeper.

This was a big firm of accountants, and the people in my cohort all knew each other pretty well. We’d joined together, been on endless training courses, suffered through exams and through being used for the most basic and menial of work – this was the 80s, and ‘driving people hard’ was the way things worked. Anyway, we knew each other pretty well, and were willing to share a good deal. So I asked everyone I knew – from what I remember, about 40 people were willing to talk about it – how much they were earning, and how highly they were rated. We were all officially at the same ‘grade’, but I was astonished by the results I found. Every single woman earned less than every single man. Every single one. The highest paid woman was earning less than the lowest paid man.

Of course my evidence wasn’t scientific, my sample was far from random, but still to me that was pretty shocking. I knew about sexism, of course, but the firm I worked for liked to portray itself as modern and very equal. This was about as far from the image that was portrayed as it could be.

As I said, I was already annoyed by the firm – this turned the annoyance into anger, so I arranged a meeting with one of the partners. Not one of the older partners, who I might expect to be ‘old-fashioned’, but one of the younger, ‘nicer’ partners, one that I had worked for quite a lot over the previous couple of years. He already knew that I wasn’t happy – and he was trying to reassure me that everything was OK, offering me an overseas secondment of my choice and so on – but this was before I confronted him with the information I had discovered. When I told him, the reaction was not what I expected. He just smiled. Why are you bothered, he asked me. You’re a man.

I was taken aback. Hugely. He was entirely serious. He thought I wouldn’t care, because I wasn’t the one suffering. Indeed, he almost seemed to be suggesting that I should be happy about it – I was benefiting from the inequality.

Frankly, it made me sick – and I told him so. I started looking for other jobs immediately – and found an excellent job very soon after, in a very different place – and with a female boss. I even told her this story in my interview when she asked me why I was leaving. She was somewhat shocked, I could tell, but had obviously experienced a fair amount of this kind of thing herself.

As a white, rich, straight, privileged man I rarely suffer from anything like this directly – but the idea that I shouldn’t care when others suffer is deeply sad. What’s more, the idea that an unequal society is better even for those at the top is something that I find very difficult to accept. As a straight white man, I still benefit in human terms if everyone is happier, if everyone has an opportunity to flourish, if everyone is treated well. Society itself is better, stronger, more positive in those terms. I don’t need to ‘crush the opposition’ in order to thrive myself – the opposite! I’m not competing with or fighting against women, against gay people, against immigrants etc – I’m part of a society with them.

Why am I writing this now? Well, the subject of marriage equality is before parliament again – and I keep hearing tired old arguments against letting gay people marry. I’m a straight married man – and I can’t see for the life of me how allowing gay people to marry would do anything to damage my marriage. I’m not threatened by gay marriage – and it takes a pretty strange and depressing attitude to think so. Does it have any impact on me? Well, insofar as a more equal society, one where more people have more chance to be happy, is a happier society, yes it does have an impact on me. A positive impact.

So, though I’m not gay, I thoroughly support the idea of gay marriage. I thoroughly support any moves to equality. I want everyone to have every opportunity to be happy. I’m not threatened by other people’s happiness. The opposite. It helps me. It helps all of us.

One Nation: Unanswered questions…

I’ve just come out of the inaugural event of the LSE’s new Institute of Public Affairs – ‘who owns the ‘One Nation’ and what does it stand for?’ It was a debate of sorts – between Michael Gove and Lord Glasman – ably chaired by the excellent Conor Gearty.

Both Glasman and Gove spoke eloquently, intelligently, amusingly and interestingly – poking fun at each other and dissecting each other’s ideas and attitudes. And yet the main impression I left with was that most of the big questions, specifically questions about the ‘One Nation’ idea, remained unanswered. As Fiona Miller, asking a question from the audience suggested, it seemed very much a ‘boys club’ kind of debate. The similarities between Gove and Glasman were far, far greater than their differences.

What I had been hoping for was some kind of explanation of how the idea of ‘one nation’ could be reconciled with the current ‘strivers vs skivers’ agenda. And yet there was none of this. Poverty, though central to Disraeli’s original feeling for a need for ‘one nation’ barely got a look in. When Fiona Miller asked where women fitted in either of their visions of ‘one nation’ Gove got very nervous, almost tongue-tied. People with disabilities didn’t get mentioned – I doubt either speaker even thought about mentioning them. Ethnic minorities? Barely a whisper of them in the speeches of either Gove or Glasman.

Indeed, the ‘one nation’ seemed very one-dimensional. It was all about one kind of person, though others got the odd name check it was little more than lip service. When Gove mentioned poverty he hinted at it all being caused by the ‘character’ of the families involved. One nation, just so long as that nation consists of good little workers doing what they’re told….

Glasman represents Blue Labour – and though I found myself liking him as a person, if Labour remains Blue I think we’re all in trouble. We need a new vision – ‘One Nation’ may be a good idea, but it has to include many more of us, and not just on the terms that are set by the old boys club. The current vision, as set out by both Glasman and Gove, effectively only allows people to be included on terms that actually exclude them. It can’t work – and the way that they both either avoided or misunderstood the questions that challenged those terms made that very clear.

Something needs to change – and I don’t think we can even hope for change from the existing people at the top.

What do students want? The dangers of oversimplification…

There’s a story doing the rounds this morning about student-staff contact hours at universities.

“Survey shows university teaching hours have barely increased as fees rise by £8,000″… says the Guardian.

I can see this has already produced a few reactions – I just thought I’d add my tuppence worth (given that it’s all about value for money). It’s just scratching the surface of a big issue, of course, but I still want to say it. I won’t waste much of my (and my students’) valuable time over this – but there are some real dangers in oversimplification of this issue. My biggest concern is about the overall idea: that ‘contact hours’ is the key measure of value for money, of the value of the course, and of what students might or even should want to get from their courses, and from their lecturers. The more this message is pushed – and I’m very disappointed by the Guardian and others for pushing it – the more the students and their parents are likely to believe it. The question is, are contact hours the real key? If they are, and if contact hours are increased, then other things are squeezed, and real, important and valuable things are lost.

Students want well prepared lectures and seminars

That should be a given – and preparing lectures takes time! It really does. Planning time, researching time, updating time, making slides (because students also, quite rightly, like to have good slides not just for the lectures but for their notes and revision), preparing reading lists and so on. Lectures also need to be up to date – for some subjects more than others, of course, but it’s relevant to an extent for almost all subjects. In some of my areas, like internet and privacy law, things are changing almost day by day. Students need up-to-date information – and well informed lecturers!

Students want their work to be assessed well

Today, as soon as I’ve finished this blog, I’ll be embarking on a day of marking exams. Marking exams takes time – and should take time. It matters to the students, and that means that lecturers need to take enough time to properly assess the work. In a qualitative subject that means much, much more than ticking off boxes, and it’s something that can’t be automated – unless we decide to turn our exams into multiple choice exercises or their equivalent, which in many subjects is not only close to impossible be entirely inappropriate.

Students want lecturers who know their stuff

…and that means that they need lecturers to have the time to do their research, to do their thinking, to do their writing. They need their lecturers to go to conferences and present and listen to research. It may seem like a gravy-train or a bit indulgent, and sometimes it can end up that way to an extent, but it’s also the life-blood of a lot of our work.

Students want lecturers who are happy and confident

…because happy and confident lecturers are more likely to make their learning an enjoyable – and productive experience. They’re going to be better at answering questions – and happier to do so. This ties in very closely with their being up to date – if you know your stuff, or rather know enough of your stuff, you’re going to be a better teacher and more helpful in almost every way. How do you get happy and confident lecturers? Well, you need to be able to recruit good people and keep them interested – so give them enough space and time to do the stuff they’re interested in, which often means research…

Students want to have a good time

This point is really crucial, even if it goes against the grain for a government that seems intent on turning the entire education system into a production line to make effective workers come out the other end. Students need to be able to enjoy themselves – not just because everyone should be able to enjoy themselves, but because a happy (in a balanced way) student is generally a better learner. Obsess about results, obsess about ‘contact hours’ and worry about ‘value for money’ and you’re less likely to get to grips with your subject, to explore the possibilities, to be inspired for the future.

Measurement and ‘accountability’ is not always right

I don’t think what I’ve written is true only of universities: rather, it reflects a much deeper malaise with the way we try to run our society, our institutions, our businesses and our government. We have fooled ourselves into thinking that measurement, targets and ‘accountability’ are the key to solving all our ‘problems’. It’s had (and is still having) a huge impact on our health services, our education system, our police services – indeed, our whole justice system. It’s a mindset that needs challenging.

That’s not to deny that measurement matters – or indeed, in this particular context, to suggest that student contact hours don’t matter. They do. Very much so. But they need to be seen in context, and as part of a much, much, bigger picture. Putting the entire focus on the simple, measurable figure can, in the end, hinder rather than help. If university lecturers have less time to prepare, less time to research, less time to keep up to date, less time to think, in the end, the students will be the losers.

UPDATED: Note, this is all entirely anecdotal and qualitative… there’s no empirical back-up to it at all!

Mr Gove

Mr Gove Cover

Mr Gove was extraordinarily arrogant.

Painfully arrogant.

He believed that he knew how everything should be done. He believed that everyone else in the world was stupid and ignorant.

The problem was, Mr Gove himself was the one who was ignorant.

Mr Gove Close up

He got most of his information from his own, misty, memory.

He thought he remembered what it had been like when he had been at school – and assumed that everyone else’s school should be the same.

He remembered the good things about his own school days, and thought that everyone should have the same.

He remembered the bad things about his own school days, and thought that it hadn’t done him any harm – and that other children should suffer the way that he had.

Mr Gove Super Close up

He got other information by reading newspapers.

The problem was, he read the wrong newspapers.

He read the ones that told stories that weren’t true, and he believed them.

He read the ones that said that teachers were all bad people, and he believed them.

He read the ones that said all academics were namby-pamby and trendy, and he believed them.

Now some people tried to argue with Mr Gove.

They produced this strange stuff called ‘evidence’. Mr Gove didn’t like evidence – particularly evidence that showed that Mr Gove’s ideas were bad, or that Mr Gove’s stories weren’t true.

So what did Mr Gove do?


Mr Gove Super Close up 2

Mr Gove ignored the evidence.

It was easy! Mr Gove didn’t need evidence, because he knew better than everyone else. And Mr Gove told the newspapers stories to ‘prove’ that he was right. And the newspapers printed these stories, because they wanted Mr Gove to be right.

And Mr Gove was happy

Why not? He was in charge.

And he knew better than everyone else.

So all was right with the world.

Mr Gove Cover

Words by me, art by @KaiserOfCrisps

A ‘dramatic reading’ of Mr Gove, by @Elmyra, can be found here….

Will the Snooper’s Charter be back?

I’ve just been checking what’s in the Queen’s Speech about the Snoopers’ Charter. The details of the speech can be found here. This is the relevant section:


Proposals on the investigation of crime in cyberspace

“In relation to the problem of matching internet protocol addresses, my Government will bring forward proposals to enable the protection of the public and the investigation of crime in cyberspace.”

The Government is committed to ensuring that law enforcement and intelligence agencies have the powers they need to protect the public and ensure national security. These agencies use communications data – the who, when, where and how of a communication, but not its content – to investigate and prosecute serious crimes. Communications data helps to keep the public safe: it is used by the police to investigate crimes, bring offenders to justice and to save lives.

This is not about indiscriminately accessing internet data of innocent members of the public.

As the way in which we communicate changes, the data needed by the police is no longer always available. While they can, where necessary and proportionate to do so as part of a specific criminal investigation, identify who has made a telephone call (or sent an SMS text message), and when and where, they cannot always do the same for communications sent over the internet, such as email, internet telephony or instant messaging. This is because communications service providers do not retain all the relevant data.

When communicating over the Internet, people are allocated an Internet Protocol (IP) address. However, these addresses are generally shared between a number of people. In order to know who has actually sent an email or made a Skype call, the police need to know who used a certain IP address at a given point in time. Without this, if a suspect used the internet to communicate instead of making a phone call, it may not be possible for the police to identify them.

The Government is looking at ways of addressing this issue with CSPs. It may involve legislation.


The Government published its draft proposals last year. The cross-party Joint Committee that scrutinised our draft provisions, and the Intelligence and Security Committee, both recognised the need to tackle this problem in legislation. We are continuing to look at this issue closely and the Government’s approach will be proportionate, with robust safeguards in place. This is not about indiscriminately accessing internet data of innocent members of the public, it is about ensuring that police and other law enforcement agencies have the powers they need to investigate the activities of criminals that takes place online as well as offline.


So what does this mean? Well, it’s a little hard to tell at this stage – and the devil will be in the detail. What it does seem to mean, at least to me, is that the Snoopers’ Charter isn’t completely dead – the government says that it ‘may involve legislation’ – but that the government isn’t going full steam ahead by any means. We do, however, need to remain vigilant, and in a big way.

The biggest problem, and something that the government seems to refuse to acknowledge or even notice, is that they’re still focusing on the ‘access’ point as the place where controls need to be placed. That’s a fundamental error – control should be at the gathering stage, to minimise the data that’s gathered, to target before gathering, not before accessing. At the moment, they still seem to be focussing on a ‘gather everything’, control access approach – an approach which, as I’ve written many times before, leaves the door open for misuse, for function creep, and for the data and systems to be vulnerable.

It’s a fundamental axiom of data that wherever and however data is held, it can be vulnerable. The only way to cut out the possibility of vulnerability – and indeed to avoid function creep – is not to gather the data in the first place.

I don’t know why they refuse to even acknowledge that point – it suggests a complete misunderstanding of a key issue. I’m not sure whether it would be worse that they have misunderstood, or that they’ve understood but decided not to talk about this – or even that they’re being deliberately deceptive. Whichever one it is, it’s not good at all. I hope they can, or will, accept and understand this at some point.


A couple of things have happened today (Thursday 9th May). The first is the Theresa May seems to have effectively said she wants to go ahead with original plan – she seems, on the face of it, to have learned almost nothing from the way that the original bill was so roundly criticised. The second is that Lib Dems – most notably Julian Huppert (who happens to be my MP) – have made it clear that it won’t happen, and that all that’s possible is a very limited piece of legislation based around the IP address issue. Moreover, Julian Huppert reminded me (via twitter) that the parliamentary timetable is against them:

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 14.35.46I hope he’s right – and he probably is. That, however, raises a couple of questions.

  1. If Nick Clegg was as clearly against the bill as he has said, why did he allow the vagueness and ambiguity in the text (see above) to happen?
  2. Why is Theresa May still pushing for the bill – and seemingly briefing journalists that the bill is still possible?

It may be that this is all jockeying for position for the next election – Theresa May is setting out her stall as a ‘law and order’ candidate, and trying to set the agenda for the next Tory manifesto. If so, it makes it all the more important that there isn’t a Tory majority government next time around. The fact that May seems to have been supported in her aims at least to an extent by Yvette Cooper for Labour is even more worrying – Labour’s record over civil liberties has been pretty abysmal over the last couple of decades at least, so it should be no surprise, but it should also focus the minds of those of us opposed to surveillance. Labour needs to come on board – but getting that to happen will be no small feat.

Indeed, that’s the bottom line with all of this. Politicians need to be convinced that taking the side of civil liberties over authoritarianism is a vote winner. Ultimately, that’s probably all they care about. I think it can be a vote winner – the Snoopers’ Charter lost the battle of hearts and minds last year, to a great extent because people don’t like the idea of a Big Brother state. Privacy is still popular – indeed, given the threats it faces, it may be more popular than ever. It needs to be….


Google Glass: just because you can…

As a bit of a geek, and a some-time game player, it’s hard not to like the look of Google Glass. Sure, it makes you look a little dorky in its current incarnation (even if you’re Sergey Brin, as in the picture below) but people like me are used to looking dorky, and don’t really care that much about it. What it does, however, is cool, and cool in a big way. We get heads-up displays that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago, a chance to feel like Arnie in the Terminator, with the information about everything we can see immediately available. It’s cool – in a dorky, sci-fi kind of way, and for those of us brought up on a diet of SF it’s close to irresistible.

Sergey Brin

And yet, there’s something in the back of my mind – well, OK, pretty close to the front of my mind now – that says that we should be thinking twice about pushing forward with developments like this. Just because we can make something as cool as Google Glass, doesn’t mean that we should make it. There are implications to developments like this, and risks attached to it, both direct and indirect.

Risks to the wearer’s privacy

First we need to be clear what Google Glass does – and how it’s intended to be used. The idea is that the little camera on the headset essentially ‘sees’ what you see. It then analyses what it can see, and provides the information about what you see – or information related to it. In one of the promotional videos for it, for example, as the wearer looks at a subway station, the Glass alerts the wearer to the fact that there’s a delay on the subway, so he’d better walk. Then he looks at a poster for a concert – it analyses the poster, then links directly to a ticket agency that lets him buy a ticket for the concert.

Cool? Sure, but think about what’s going on in the background – because there’s a lot. First of all, and almost without saying, the Google Glass headset is tracking the wearer: what we can ‘geolocation’. It knows exactly where you are, whenever you’re using it. There are implications to that – I’ve written about them before – and this is yet another step towards making geolocation the ‘norm’. The idea is that Google (and others) want to know exactly where you are at all times – and of course that means that others could find out, whether for good purposes or bad.

Secondly, it means that Google are able to analyse what you are looking at – and profile you, with huge accuracy, in the real world, the way to a certain extent they already do in the online world. And, again, if Google can profile you, others can get access to that profile – either through legal means or illegal. You might have consented to giving others access, in one of those long Terms and Conditions documents you scrolled down without reading and clicked ‘OK’ to. The government might ask Google for access to your feed, in the course of some investigation or other. A hacker might even hack into your system to take a look…

…and this last risk, the risk of hacking, is a very real one. Weaknesses in Google Glass have already surfaced. As the Guardian reported a few days ago:

“Augmented reality glasses could be compromised by a hacker who would be able to see and hear everything the wearer does”

This particular weakness may or may not turn out to be a real risk – but the potential is there. Where data exists, and where systems exist, they are hackable – Google Glass, by its nature, could be a clear target. And what they get, as a result, could be seriously dangerous and damaging.

Risks to others’ privacy

Equally worrying are the risks to those the wearer looks at. There are specific risks – anyone who knows about the concept of ‘creepshots’ – surreptitiously taken photographs, usually of young women and girls, up skirts, down blouses etc, posted on the internet – should be see the possibilities immediately. As Gizmodo put it:

“Once these things stop being a rich-guy novelty and start actually hitting the streets, the rise in creepshots is going to be worse than any we’ve ever seen before”

They’re right – and the makers of Google Glass should be aware of the possibilities. Some people are even working on developing an app to allow you to take a picture using Google Glass just by winking, which would extend the possibilities of creepshots one creepy step forward – at the moment, at least, voice commands are needed to take shots, alerting the victim, but with winking or other surreptitious command systems even that protection would be gone.

Creepshots are just one extreme – the other opportunities for invasions of privacy are huge. In mitigation, some say ‘Oh, at least you can see that people are wearing Google Glass, so you know they’re filming you’. Well, yes, but there are lots of problems with that. Firstly, should we really need to check the glasses of everyone who can see us? Secondly, this is just the first generation of Google Glass. What will the next one look like? Cooler, less like something out of Star Trek? And the technology could be used in ways that are much less obvious – hack and disguise your own Google Glass and make it look like a pair of ordinary sunglasses? Not hard for a hacker. They’ll be available on the net within a pretty short time.

Normalising surveillance

All these, however, are just details. The real risk is at a much higher level – but it may be a danger that’s already been discounted. It’s the risk that our society goes down a route where surveillance is the norm. Where we expect to be filmed, to have our every movement, our every action, our every word followed, analysed, compiled, and aggregated for the service of companies that want to make money out of us and governments that want to control us. Sure, Google Glass is cool, and sure it does some really cool stuff, but is it really worth that?

Now there may be ways to mitigate all these risks, and there may be ways that we can find to help overcome some of the issues. I’d like it to be so, because I love the coolness of the technology. Right now, though, I’m not convinced that we have – or even that we necessarily will be able to. It means, for me, I think we need to remember that just because we can do things like this, it doesn’t mean that we should.

How should Labour react to UKIP? A few thoughts…

UKIP’s showing in the local elections needs to be taken seriously – and by all political parties. The biggest danger for Labour, it seems to me, is that they will notice (correctly, I suspect) that the main ‘losers’ through the rise of UKIP are the Tories, and assume as a consequence that things are basically ‘OK’ as a result, and that all that is needed is more of the same. That, to me, would be a big mistake. Labour needs to dig deeper, to be more thoughtful.

There are a number of reasons that people might have voted UKIP. It might be, as some suggest, simply a protest vote. It might, on the other hand, hint at real and worrying levels of racism and anti-immigrant feeling. It might be that the huge attention paid to Nigel Farage by the BBC et al. has just had a huge effect. It might be that people really are worried about Europe. All of these things need addressing.

The first is the most important. If this is a ‘protest vote’, Labour need to understand what people are protesting about. Why are they dissatisfied by the ‘usual’ parties? Labour should notice that they’re not offering any real alternative – that aping the coalition, accepting its austerity, its approach to welfare etc etc is not something that voters want or like. More of the same, just a tiny, tiny bit ‘nicer’ – or rather a tiny, tiny bit less hideously nasty – is not an alternative. Labour has got to show that it can offer something different – different from the current government, and different from the Labour governments of the recent past. ‘New’ Labour should be old news – and the likes of Liam Byrne, Stephen Twigg and so on should be taken swiftly and securely away from the front line.

The second – that racism and anti-immigrant feelings are on the rise is harder. It’s there, for sure – but the response could go two ways. The ‘appeasement’ approach that seems to be the current idea for the Labour party – saying ‘we hear your concerns and we’re going to be tough’ is both morally wrong and politically short-sighted. Racism and anti-immigration feeling is fuelled by fear and misinformation for the most part, egged on by a media that likes to peddle these myths. It’s easy to fall into the trap of going along with the agenda – but all it does is entrench the view, and make it easier for the likes of UKIP to succeed. Making racism ‘acceptable’ won’t help Labour – it will help Labour’s opponents, particularly in the long term. It will take bravery to challenge the false agenda head on, and it will probably be a level of bravery beyond the Labour party, sadly – but I still hope Labour will have the guts to go for it.

The third challenge – challenging the media love-in with Nigel Farage – is one that Labour must realise that they have to take face on. He gets too easy a ride – not just from the media, but from other politicians. Watching him in his all-too-regular appearances on Question Time it seems as though the other panellists treat him with kid gloves. They need to come out fighting – particularly Labour representatives. I suspect the other parties will be feeling the same – they really need to.

The fourth challenge – the challenge of Europe – is another matter entirely. It’s entirely possible that Cameron will make even more positive moves towards a referendum on membership of the EU – indeed, I’d say it’s likely. This time, if I was Ed Miliband, I’d call his bluff. Say yes to a referendum. Say it loud and clear. In fact, I’d make it part of the Labour Party’s manifesto tomorrow, if it was up to me – because this discussion has to be had, this battle must be fought, and it must be won. Hiding from the fight just isn’t enough.

That last point is true not just for Europe, but for the whole of the challenge of UKIP. Labour shouldn’t be hiding, shouldn’t be ignoring them, shouldn’t be accepting their agenda – they should be fighting them, and fighting them with strength and radicalism. Will they do it? There aren’t many signs of it so far, but I hope that behind the scenes people are at least thinking about the possibility.