Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Cracks appear in the ID ideal

Well, the news that ID cards will have to share old databases is well out and about. See also BBC and the Guardian, which also notes that foreigners living here will be forced to get ID'd, and has a handy timetable of events. Furthermore...
"Mr Reid said that it would also reduce the overall £5.4bn cost of the ID project but declined to give a new estimate, saying it would be reported to parliament next April."
In economic terms, this probably is about "doing something sensible", to quote Reid. And no, it's not a U-turn. What it is, however, should be considered quite blatant function creep: the scheme "voted for" under manifesto commitments (as ill-defined and vaguely publicised as it was) will have nothing whatsoever to do with the final scheme, as bit by bit each pillar of what defined it is taken away, as is happening here.

Bureaucracy has, perhaps, saved our bacon, at least. It is a sad day when one must choose between wasting a lot of money, and using public money to track an entire population, but given that choice, I'd rather waste the money on something that is useless at tracking, than to live in a state controlled from the very top. If democratic politics is a banner we no longer believe in (from all sides), then it seems that economic cracks (inefficiency) and technical loopholes (security flaws) will be the tool of choice in bringing such a scheme down.

The other great thing about this news is that it highlights the database side of the scheme, above and beyond the card aspect. People don't get this facet enough - nor can they, in a sense. The sheer volume of data and vast quantity of accesses to the database(s) should put the fear of all deities into people, but so far they've been blinded by their fear of terrorists and ghosts. By splitting the database into 3, attention should be drawn to which details, exactly, will be stored on each and (hopefully) just what data that is again.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

"Deliberately Exaggerated"

How is it that Rashid Raud, described as a "key suspect" in August, is now only facing charges of fraud and carrying explosives (possibly just hydrogen peroxide)? (Everyone's guilty of something.) Despite "indications of an Afghanistan-based Al-Qaeda connection" and "strict surveillance"?

What does this make of John Reid's claims at the time, that the "arrests have significantly disrupted the threat, yet we cannot be sure that the threat has been eliminated." The real question is, just what threat exists in the first place? Doesn't the inflated media coverage motivate the "other groups ... inspired to carry out their own attack"? Follow-up stories like this need to be made as public as the hype over the initial arrests, else we lapse into Reid's fundamentally flawed way of thinking:

"We must never make the mistake of thinking the danger of terrorism has passed."

The new terrorism-alert scale runs from Red (Terrorism very expected) to Black (Terrorism in progress), although the actual colour is permanently stuck somewhere in between, no matter what events occur. Question the reality of Reid, question the motives, question the fear you feel as you walk past that armed policeman. Question the news every time fresh reports of anti-terror arrests come in.

Be suspicious of them that seek suspects.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

More on prediction

Clearing some tabs out... Slashdot article on Software Being Used To Predict Who Might Kill. Very reminiscent of the recent similar list-building in London, and I guess this is the way of the future, now that "responsibility" is on the way out.

The individual is dead.

Patient Care?

Chicken Yoghurt picked up on the govt's arrogance over NHS patients' privacy the other day. This is the sad truth fo the present UK:
It looks, once again, that we’ll have to put our faith in governmental incompetence and hope the system never sees the light of day in full ‘working’ order.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

More4: Suspect Nation

I missed it, but thanks to the lovely Internet you can now catch More4's 'Suspect Nation' documentary by Henry Porter on YouTube:

I've seen a third of it so far, but he's doing an excellent job of approaching the issues with a calm, non-agitated yet unassumingly questioning air - which, I think, is what we need.

Technological Tarot

Police Predicting Criminality in London.

Reminds me very much of Clay Shirky pointing out the destruction of free will. The same principle applies to terrorism, but this is just because crime and terror are the forefront of "applicability".

Even if you don't believe in free will, there are problems with this approach. Feature creep is the main one - if society is, by its cultural (rather than absolute) nature, a problem-solving entity (a fixation on science would suggest so), then all problems, big or small, should eventually lead to such predictive technologies being implemented in all areas.

This leads to the other problems. Firstly, how do we decide what is a "problem" - who sets out the norms that the "rest of us" are to adhere too, and how do they get overseen? (This is, of course, a current issue, only there seems to be less trust in the personal decision-making route than in "scientific" processes.) Secondly, to what extent can we trust the science to make accurate predictions, given that reality may (or, indeed, may not) differ wildly from the models used to predict?

To solve problems with 100% efficiency, all one needs to do is to lock everyone (including the guards) up at birth. This is the epitome of technological problem-solving.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Perp report: From ATM to MP3

Haven't been keeping up with El Reg recently, so this story about a man who used an MP3 player to hack ATMs is via the Kitcat, and is doubly interesting:

Firstly, the guy used the player to record the tones being sent over the lines. I tend to avoid paying a few quid just to get out ten, but the times I've stood around such a machine and heard these tones, I've always wondered if it would be possible to record and decode them, even if just to see what number was being dialled. (I always figured it would go quiet, like a modem, after initial connection...) Alas, there are no further details in the article, so quite how the tones were intercepted remains a mystery currently.

Secondly, it notes that "Police uncovered the scam almost by accident when they stopped Parsons for making an illegal u-turn in a car in London". This is, I guess the way forward. Years ago, I used to read 2000AD, and I distinctly recall Judge Dredd, hard-nosed bastich that he is, pulling people over for.. well, anything - getting in his way, or whatever. A swift, centralised identication process meant that he could always justify his intervention with the phrase "everyone's guilty of something".

Judge Dredd, I believe, was always meant to be a satire on the US police force. As with good satire, it never fails to end up a prediction...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Negotiating the Future of Data Surveillance

The Telegraph today has an article on the state of surveillance today. While perhaps lacking in deep philosphical insights, it does do a decent job of listing the multiplicity and ubiquity of ways in which we are not just tracked, but preserved throughout all our activities - for example, pictures video of journeys being kept for 6 years.

Perhaps I've had a change of heart; perhaps merely trying to stick a foot in the ground and say "no" to data collection is the wrong way to get things to change. Progress sweeps all aside, it seems, and far better to influence what seems inevitable than to try to obstruct it.

Whether we live in a "police society" or not, we certainly have arrived at an information society, in which our daily lives are encapsulated as 0s and 1s. Considering the chances of getting some kind of bottom-up encryption/privacy scheme in place (a la "DRM for the citizen") are immensely slim, I think it's time we faced up to the realities of pervasive information.

"Pervasive" is an important word. Privacy isn't about obscurity, but about 2 other things. Firstly, it relates to the idea of some choice, or limitation of who knows what about us. We're happy to give information to supermarkets in exchange for "money off" (although I suspect that's an illusion). The problem comes when the information we think as being safely in the hands of one organisation magically (via, oh, law, or simple agreement to co-operate with governments, etc.) lands in the lap of someone we didn't really think would have access to it.

Of course, that's not true of all information. Certainly, there is probably more information - usually that which isn't involved in private transactions and, as such, isn't "exchangeable" for discounts, etc - that we would prefer no-one to collect. Should people know how many times we each have sex, for instance? From a "social welfare" point of view, perhaps this could be an indicator for the health of a relationship - particularly important if we decide that children must be looked after by loving parents.

(Note that this is different to actively encouraging, or forcing certain behaviour - that would be "fascist" indeed. The act of monitoring is encouragement enough - passive, non-interventionist, yet still effective. One cannot even say that this is the behaviour of a "Nanny" state, as their is a distinction between "supervision" and "deterrent monitoring".)

So we need to start considering, in force, how better to work with government (and, to a lesser extent, businesses) over un'warranted' data exchange. The demand for mor "efficient" services is real - whether in service processing, or in crime, etc. But at the moment, the citizen (or subject, if you like) is on the back foot, and the only dissenting voices are those which decry ever-increasing surveillance of information through government channels.

But maybe the future is compromise. A "deal". Something along the lines of.. "we, as citizens, need data exchange for this, and we don't mind you doing that so long as a) it's thoroughly accountable, and b) you really don't use data for that."

ID Cards are a good, multi-purpose example. We concentrate so much on the bad that arguments for the "good" use of data get crushed as well - but these good purposes are also mostly inevitable - this is the world we have.

The path, then, to having voluntary, controlled and accountable data-services (rather than the forces, and less transparent "hand-me-down" approaches currently being installed) is to negotiate, to enter into a deal-making situation.

Sure the idea of "good" and "bad" is going to be subjective, and vary across individuals. But that's the nature of democracy. Debate, discourse, involvement - these are the things that we need to ensure that the ever-increasing mountain of data doesn't just slip into the hands of those at the top without question. In a way, being in the debate is more important than simply having a "moral" point of view. At the moment, we're not even in that debate.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Media-Consumer Feedback Loops

Posted a piece on Media-Consumer Feedback Loops over on my other blog, wondering about news and reality spiralling out of control (for, say, house prices and terrorism), but thought it might be a good idea to link to it from here to, as it deals with media and terrorism and stuff.

Who Needs Cards?

So we're being asked to give our fingerprints on the streets now, are we? Whoop-de-woo.

Mark Wallace's comments about the end, pointing to this basically being a trial, rather than merely a "voluntary" scheme, are correct. This is yet another of those small steps that add up to become a mountain.

I say that the term "civil liberties" is wrongly used in a case like this. The impression we get of civil liberties is of the person, of the individual, and their relationship to the powers that be. In my view, that doesn't go nearly far enough. Schemes like this need to be reconsidered - not at an individual level, but at a societal level. We need to re-address what we want society, not people to be, and under increasingly "efficient" (and supposedly "necessary") mechanisms like this, we apparently want it to be bullshit.

I hereby discard "civil liberties" as a relatively useless, romantic politic under the current regime (perhaps it has more value in other cultures, which don't merely regard it as Hollywood optimism). And I hereby launch vitriol against the new idea of "Police Society" that, it must be said, we are loving every minute of in our fear-induced, cowled state.

Truly, the cult ("ure" omitted) of the UK has never been so weak and actively apathetic.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Poking the New Passports

Just picked up on an article in last Friday's Guardian that's worthy of a read: "Cracked it!" goes into some detail about an interesting "feature" of the encrypted channels RFID in the new UK passports use - namely, that the key needed to establish communications - and hence access the data on the chip - is made up of some standard details (passport no., date of birth, expiry date) which can easily be found if one has the passport.

There's the clincher, at the moment. The debate over security is centred around whether one has physical access to the passport or not. While the Home Office may be correct when it says that:
the information sucked out of the chip is only the same as that which appears on the page, readable with the human eye. And to obtain the key in the first place, you would need to have access to the passport

However, naivety is the bane of security applications - often, one small attack that seems non-consequential can be combined with various other "small" attacks to create something that is just as "consequential" as a "big" attack. Jigsaw pieces.

The question, therefore, becomes a matter of attitude. In other words, how does this naivety translate into ongoing, day-to-day authentication processes? To establish heavy cryptographic (effectively DRM) techniques is one thing. To assume that they can't be broken and to carry on as if they never will be is another. The article mentions the information available to, say, a postman - who knows a passport is for you, knows the name and address, and can get hold of birth dates relatively easily. (The profiling longed for by government ripples out into the commercial sector too, of course...) Brute-forcing the passport number may or may not be difficult.

There seem to be a fair few people working on the security (from both sides) of this machine, anyway. It'll be interesting to see how it goes, and whether or not "zero-day" exploits emerge from underneath our attitude.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Annoyingly, I'm way too busy to read it right now. But for future reference, here's a link to Richard Thomas' report on the Surveillance Society. (Via BBC News.)

Back soon.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Polarising Effect of Surveillance

Some Baudrillard reading, in particular "The China Syndrome", brings me back to a post on the dual purpose of CCTV from over a year ago. In said post, I tried to describe the split in CCTV between a tool to intimidate people (the panopticism principle) and a tool to provide evidence. (Posiwid also noted the effects on the watchers at the time.)

Since then, the ubiquity of surveillance has increased, of course, and with it our societal "comfort" zone in having such devices "watch over us". But the effects of these same devices continue to evolve, and it's worth a note here to keep up with the trend.

In "The China Syndrome" (and, well, the entirety of Simulacra & Simulation), Baudrillard contends that the areas of what is "real" and what is "perceived" (by, in this case, monitoring devices) are now intricately confused to the point of becoming the same thing. That is, one can no longer say that "reality" is a cause to which media - TV, et al - is simply a post-event effect. On the contrary, TV can be said to "cause itself":
"it is the intrusion of TV into the reactor that seems to give rise to the nuclear incident - because TV is like its anticipation and its model in the everyday universe"
How does this apply to CCTV and surveillance in general though? First, we must remember that feedback via surveillance systems is becoming increasingly close-looped: people see themselves on screen at the same time as they do things. There is no "risk" of a watcher present, as the watcher is always present. (Indeed, the person becomes the watcher by placing themselves in such a situation - the surveillance and its feedback is merely their tool.)

So this presents an interjection that itself (i.e. the interjection, rather than the device) has 2 purposes. Firstly, as Orwell described, and as outlined in the post from May last year, it subdues.

But we cannot say that it subdues everyone equally. On the other hand, there are those who such an interjection encourages - through a cultural "rebellion" wherein "fame" and/or "notoriety" are tattoos to be treasured. This is spurred on by the association of "celebrity" with "success" via a media that continuously seeks to elevate "normal" people into "winning" positions (the onslaught of Reality TV et al).

Hence this is the point of this post: that surveillance acts as a polariser, not just a supressor. On the one hand, those that have "nothing to hide", as it were, become increasingly subdued. On the other hand (and as a result), those that are the "loose cannons", the ones that don't fit into the surveilled model of "fitting in with the crowd" are exaggerated, amplified - doubly so through both the effect of the surveillance, and against the retreating background of the increasingly quiet.

I don't know if you could call this polarisation a distillation of class or not. Probably not, but the analogy holds anyway - what surveillance does is to set two extremes in action. The beauty of the system is that you then have the evidential side of it - to effectively "commercialise": that is, mobilise as "therapy" for the subdued ones, to take home and remind themselves of who they aren't.

Of course, then it just remains a matter of logistics to "skim off" the recorded rabble, to use this "evidence" to justify the increases in youth prison rates, to confirm what a good idea stop-n-searches are, etc. Posiwid was right - the surveillors see what they want to see. Baudrillard was right - the output is the effect of the CCTV, not the other way around.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Airport to tag passengers

So it's been a few weeks/months, huh? Things have been extra busy as of late as a dissertation reached full swing. Still, the introduction of another blog has given me opportunity to re-assess my on-line presence. Hopefully keeping this blog up to date will become more par for the course as well.

To move things onwards slowly but swiftly, an article on tagging passengers around airports caught my eye. In particular, there seems to be a trial going ahead despite readily-foreseeable weaknesses:
Colin Brooks, Optag co-ordinator, said the trial would determine if the tags would be feasible in the light of obvious problems, such as the possibility that people might ditch their tags to avoid detection, or swap them with another person.

The obvious way to solve this is to implant tags upon entry (in fact, don't some trendy bars (run by Kevin Warwick?) do this now? :-/ ), or maybe just some super-strong glue will do the trick. Either that or make sure they explode if removed within designated zones...

Also note that the first listed reasoning behind it is "improving airport efficiency". Contemplate that for a moment, and remember that, by nature, humans are generally quite "inefficient" anyway.

It's been a couple of months away, but we still need to ask what we really want our technology to do for us, or to us.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The fate of the human race.

Stupidy 1, stupidy 2, stupidy 3.

And apparently it's going to continue in this vain for quite some time. Meanwhile, anyone actually wanting to inflict damage will probably be a little bit smarter than striking exactly where people are most jumpy.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Safety? I remember this "safety"...

Eleven have been charged, but quote of the day goes to the Met's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke:

"I can assure the public that we are doing everything we can to keep you safe so that you can live your lives without being in constant fear.

"The threat from terrorism is real. It is here, it is deadly and it is enduring. We cannot afford to be complacent.

So there's a threat - I should be afraid, shouldn't I?

Maybe if you don't want people to live in fear, you shouldn't tell them they should pretty much expect to get blown up in the next 6 months.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Nitty-Gritty of Terror

Wow, lots been happening since last post, huh? Fortunately, the Register are here with some sense amongst the media madness, diving into the "murky" (if only for the extent to which it's ignored) world of actually trying to use liquid explosives. Going all Baudrillard, the Reg points out:

"But the Hollywood myth of binary liquid explosives now moves governments and drives public policy. We have reacted to a movie plot."

Compare this article to Reid's latest sentiments, including a call for "a crackdown on internet sites used to incite terrorism". Hands up who's seen this before? Crackdowns on "incitement" is never a well-defined activity. All too often, "incitement" includes the exact kind of information that the Register article goes over. The moral of the story is that we don't care waht you think, so long as you don't have the tools to do it. Information is a tool. (John Reid is also a tool, but in a different way.)

Expect the usual vitriol about "sites dedicated to bomb-making". Expect the implications that if you know how explosives work, you're obviously either a terrorist or a nutter.

But, as the Register article highlights, less knowledge of the details is a bad thing. If we want governments and their policy to be ultimately accountable to us, then we have responsibility to understand - collectively - the nitty-gritty behind the reasons and the excuses that we're given. If lies or exaggerations are used to enforce rules, then those rules are invalid, and the real reasons should be explored.

This is why this is not simply a fight against terrorism. This is a fight against the fear and irrationality that terrorism feeds off - the same fear and irrationality that is present, to some degree, within all of us that is the basis of kooky rituals and superstition. When something eventually does blow up, everyone will be saying, "it's not our fault - we did everything we could, we must have done because we were afraid", but what an illusion of rationality.

I agree with 2600. Our governments are failing us because we are failing them - in our requirements, as part of a democratic system, to understand the choices they're making.

Friday, August 04, 2006

MPs catch up with rest of world. Blair still in denial.

"[The science and technology committee] also said there was public confusion about ID cards because there had not been enough details about them."

Well shit, duh. I'm not even going to bother coming up with anything insightful about this. All the insight was expressed by many, many, many people many months/years ago. If they're only just working it out now, what's the point in discussing it any further?

The only faintly amusing thing to come out of this is a possible re-definition of the term "plank":

"The MPs were sceptical about the estimated costs of the scheme, which Tony Blair has called "a major plank"..."

At least a 2-by-4 would probably be more useful.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Who Am I? Identity in the 21st Century.

The Reg has further updates on the ID malaise, including timeline speculation, lack of their mention for anti-terrorism, and links to the LSE Identity Project which I haven't seen yet, and Gordon Brown announcing the chair of the Forum on Identity Management.

The last of these, according to Browny, will..
  • Review the current and emerging use of identity management in the private and public sectors and identify best practice.

  • Consider how public and private sectors can work together, harnessing the best identity technology to maximise efficiency and effectiveness.

  • Produce a preliminary report [...] on identity management by Easter 2007.

One thing that seems "certain", then, is the continuing merger of identity with technology (hence the phrase, uh, "identity technology"). In many ways this is simply a formalisation of the gradual move towards networked, digitalised identity that has taken place over the last few decades (or few hundred, or few thousand years, depending how you look at it). The implications of this are interesting at least, if also unavoidable. Still, it means that answers to the question "who am I?" become increasingly more muddy as time goes on, leaving confused and drunkenly-philosphical students with ever greater space to explore while attempting to get into someone else's pants.

Monday, July 10, 2006

ID Cards: Dying in the water?

This post comes to you without a trace of "I told you so". No, really. Yesterday the Times published some leaked e-mails from last month between 2 senior officials involved producing in the ID register. The Times has its own analysis, as does The Register and Spyblog.

All of which point to the troubles that the scheme is already in a fair bit of trouble. From my experience on flailing IT projects, if a scheme is having difficulties at this point, with deadlines looming relatively closely, then there are 2 ways things can go:

1. The "sensible" ("technically experienced") option: Bite the bullet, come clean, reconsider the problems being faced and what reality preaches. Use the lessons learnt to re-plan and re-schedule.

2. The "CYA" ("politically experienced") option: Hide the fact that you're sweating it a bit. Throw more people at it and come up with some sloppy contingency plans (not out of lack of ability - sloppy is merely the best you can come up with in the situation) and keep making excuses.

Peter Smith's claims that "It was a Mr Blair who wanted the 'early variant' card. Not my idea..." point very much to the second tactic currently.

Unfortunately, the real suckers that can't afford, or aren't in a position to C their As are the people in the database, and subject to its binary rule. As more sticky tape gets applied to the project in order to prevent the next election becoming (more of) a disaster, more and more "time-saving" hacks will creep in until the integrity of the system (you know, that thing which keeps everyone's identity in, i.e. who they are) is less than acceptable - however, as reputations and jobs are, by that point, so intrinsically wrapped up in the project - more so than the livelihoods of the people being stored in it - there will be very little enthusiasm for either scrapping it or replacing it.

This is how white elephants come about, like the birth of a star. Implementation suffers mainly because planning is crap. Isn't it a wonderful feeling to be present at its conception? As the next generation are shuffled into line to submit themselves to a system which lets the government do what it needs, but that suffers the odd (e.g. monthly) security scandal, won't it be great to think back to this day and know why those problems exist?

This post is deliberately ambiguous over whether the solution is better project management, or scrapping the ID scheme entirely. The point is that the stage we're at is halfway between these two, and we are ending up with the worst of both worlds - an expensive, useless lump of equipment that protects us neither from the government nor from criminals. Datamining, the rule of law, and the ubiquity of an information society mean that any government is now in a very real position to monitor us whatever happens, even without an ID scheme (which is just the icing...)

At least Blair's name is getting permanently attached to this blunder.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Quote of the Day, and Surveillance Predictions

First up, as the debate over how long suspects can be detained for is resurrected, Tony McNulty gets quoted by the BBC in a way that makes me chuckle:

"Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said he welcomed the committee's report, but not the "severity of any criticism"."

Looks like the case for extending the 28 day detention period is "building" (i.e. more people are more afraid), with the report saying (according to the article) "such measures would have helped in cases such as the recent anti-terror raid in Forest Gate, east London." Don't forget that locking everyone up would be a pretty good way of clamping down on terrorism too, though.

Once again we get back to the issue of data overload, and our ability to generate mountains of the stuff but not sift through it. The same issue is inherent in CCTV's design - more cameras (to deter people, or to make people feel safer) and - so long as people are there to direct them at incidents - instant image capture. But for those cameras which get stored straight to film or hard drive, someone has to go through all that footage once something has happened.

The solutions to this problem are many, but the only ones to be considered will be the ones involving more technology - facial recognition, gait recognition, increased identification and tracking, etc. The "cutting edge" at the moment is the move towards "distributed" monitoring, i.e. getting residents to either report incidents or to watch over the footage in real time. Expect this to extend to residents being allowed to playback footage to recover scenes that have already been stored.

Also expect some research to start surfacing in "trouble recognition" (at least, I haven't seen any yet...) - that is, the automatic identification of movement indicating a problem, such as people swinging limbs "violently", erratic movement of 2 or more bodies simultaneously (hmmm, ambiguous) and anything out of the "ordinary". "Keep on walking and you won't look suspicious..."

Lastly, I'll apologise quickly for the lack of updates here. Real life is pretty busy with holidays and studies, and a lot of thought is going elsewhere. I'm also getting a little sick of just ranting - and oft repeating myself - and I wonder if efforts aren't better off directed elsewhere. Still, it keeps me sane (just) so while updates may be infrequent, they will still occur.


Friday, June 09, 2006

The Great No-ID Airport Challenge

Nice article from Wired about how being without ID is quicker than with when you're passing through American airports. (Whee, I get to see the set-up for myself next week, although maybe things are subtly different if you're not taking an internal flight...)

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Home Office defends sharing DNA database

Not only can you not get your DNA off the NDNAD once it's on there (however it got on there), you can also expect the data to
go flying off round the world. Data protection, anyone?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Public-directed CCTV: Spot the Obvious

People in Cambridge can now alert the CCTV centre via SMS. As the article notes, "there are something in the region of 170,000 pairs of eyes living, working and playing in these areas - who can see a lot more than the police or CCTV cameras ever can." More details are at the Cambridge site.

The "bigger" issue of why those 170,000 people should just hand over all responsibility for their town to the Police aside, there's one really obvious flaw in this idea.

How do you know that the person sending the text is telling the truth?

CCTV is not all-seeing. Cameras must either rotate, or you must have a number of them in one area (or, indeed, in all areas) to cover a wide space. Assuming the camera isn't hidden, one can be pretty aware whether or not they're being watched by simply looking at the camera.

So publically-directed CCTV means that the public (who are also suspects/criminals, remember) can quite easily influence the direction a particular CCTV camera is pointing in by sending a text. The chances of this working are, according to the site, directly proportional to the seriousness of the offence being reported:

"Please note that an incident involving for example an assault will take a higher priority than a shoplifter."

Thus, in an area covered by only 1 camera, misdirect the camera elsewhere while you carry out whatever crime you want. The level-of-seriousness approach dictates that even if someone does see you and alerts the CCTV room, there's a good chance your faked "incident" will take higher priority over the crime that you're committing.

Does no-one think these things through?

Friday, May 26, 2006

Knives and Happiness

As a man gets stabbed to death by a 16 year old over a cigarette, and another teenager gets stabbed outside school, attention must turn to the idea of knife amnesties and just how effective such police-biased measures can have. As pointed out previously, the doublethink existing - nay culturally embedded almost - seems to have reached new heights that should remain only within the minds and scripts of satirical commentators. The contrast between the truth of the situation and the proposals put forward is beyond parody. For example, in the first article, Detective Fox comments quite rightly:

"It is terrible to think that Simon was killed over a disagreement over something as seemingly trivial as a cigarette."

Indeed. Doesn't it make you wonder why anyone would turn to violence of any kind over such a disagreement? what's going on in the boy's head, exactly? Ah but wait, our good Detective goes on to proudly conclude:

"I hope today's court result will show people how dangerous knives can be."

Yes! It was the knife all along! Violence is fine - a swift punch to the head, a brick to the knees, so long as you don't have a sharp, shiny, stabby thing to do it with.

Granted, perhaps it's not the police force's place to indulge in commentary over the social and mental wellbeing of today's youth - after all, maybe they're just here to clean up the mess that gets made after everything else is said and done. But it's this very border - the line between the kind of social interaction we lay out for ourselves (even if we do it unintentionally) and how we react to the consequences - that needs to be looked at. Thoroughly.

The police can be said to exist on one side of this line, I think. The line is fuzzy, admittedly, as "innocent" gradually merges with "suspect" (as we have now) and finally into "guilty of something", Dredd style. But should the police's remit extend to cultural enforcement? No.

The problem is that nobody knows quite where they stand any more. The government, bless their little green socks, has backed right away from any interventionism. Or, not backed away, but rather left to the devices of the market. To back away, one must first be next to it. But culture has always been , and always will be, about independence and localisation. Culture is a personal trait. Thus, it would be fair to say that the government has stood back and encouraged the onset of "mass culture" and the consequences that go with it.

The influence of mass production and the associated atomisation of the individual has left its mark. The so-called "law abiding" public have the resources (and, often, the imposed necessity) to exist in solitary suspension, but they're not sure that's really what they want and so end up overcompensating, in various manners. Meanwhile, politicians observe this floudering and proudly pronounce that happiness is back on the agenda with a vengeance.

But as Frank Furedi points out in a good article, an interventionist view, the imposition of happiness by a therapeutic state, only kills the thing you're looking for. Happiness is not an end, but a by-product, and going after it with national policies is a sure recipe for disaster. As Furedi puts it, "Mass-produced happiness is a contradiction in terms".

I've (finally) been reading Baudrillard's Precession of Simulacra today, which handily contrasts the world we've constructed around us (including Disneyland as an epitome, but only as a distraction from other constructions such as "health food") with both the world we deal with "in reality" and the world we've left behind. I recommend reading the link above. (Plug: further (rough) thoughts here.)

In some ways, when people refer to the "law abiding" section of the population, what they really mean is those that have been distracted sufficiently by this new world that's been mass-constructed, a cage of shiny things that prevents us from realising what the consequences are outside of this world.

An abundance of knives and a lack of happiness are merely indicators, then, of this world we've chosen to ignore, or to leave behind. But either way, it exists and it sits in public spaces. For the "law abiding" amongst us, we're supposedly safe so long as we sit inside private areas. It's time that policies were directed at re-uniting these two worlds, instead of just being squarely aimed at a world that we wish and hope exists, the world that we want to live in instead of the world we do live in.

Or alternatively, we can ban knives and enforce happiness and hope that the old world will just go away.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Any sufficiently advanced technology...

Article on the Register about biometrics and ID cards to clamp down on immigrants...

"The Government has also previously been at pains to deny claims that the ID scheme will operate as a tracking network, so Blair's use of "track" as a synonym for 'log' or 'identify' is unfortunate."

As the Reg points out, the details of the technology are left for another time... but isn't that always the way? After all this time, no-one's really sure whether biometrics will work as planned on the whole - some trials were done, and now the discussions has quietly dropped out of the limelight. Does that mean that they're being rethunk? Or just turned into technical specification documents, ready for production? One of these days, I'll do some research into such things...

Still, the extent to which Blair places his faith in technology ("Jesus would have had an ID card") is paramount to alluding to the use of magic as the solution to all those hard-hitting socio-political problems that just keep popping up... Reports of cries of "Immigrantis Expellionus!" coming from Whitehall's inner chambers are currently unverified.

Hmm, calls for wisdom and some details in the policy process? The sky must be falling somewhere...

Monday, May 22, 2006

CCTV: The Movie

This looks interesting - Andrea Arnold has directed a film depicting Glasgow's CCV network, and is calling for more debate on what implications CCTV has for society. As she puts it:

"You can see why it is there but we should consider what it means for our future."

Right on. Wonder how easy it is to get hold of stuff like this if it doesn't appear in the local arthouse...

Friday, May 19, 2006

More technicalities

A couple of stories attracting my eye today...

Firstly, (via Slashdot), ZDNet reports that the UK government want people's encryption keys under the latest installment of the RIP Act (that is, Part III). That encryption is effectively free and easy seems to continually get conveniently "forgotten about" in the ongoing quest for more snooping powers, but it's clear that it lurks in the background, ready to roll out once the frog's gotten used to its new temperature.

Spyblog has a call to write to Liam Byrne over the matter, and I suggest a written or printed letter may be more effective than "deletable" e-mail...

Meanwhile, the Guardian leads with a look at integrating local police data into "frontline council staff" - the obvious issues over data confidentiality are raised, but that doesn't seem to stop most Labour plans these days.

None of these measures actually address any roots of the problem. These are still all technical "fixes" that do nothing but attempt to cover up the genuinely shafted state we're in. There's no political pressure to address these roots, so long as it means taking on some responsibility (at all levels, from government to business to the general public).

Maybe it's time that the deep and - yes, gosh - philosophical debates underlying these paltry solutions was piggy-backed onto the "simple" statist vs anti-statist arguments currently being fought (and lost) by those trying to hold the government to account. Maybe we need to get wisdom back onto the agenda.

Addendum: Same goes for all those calls for knife-screening in schools. Why do people put all their faith in machinery when they even acknowledge that "we have a weapons culture in this country" (emphasis added)?

Friday, May 12, 2006

The "cover-up" that is 7/7

Good to see normal political service has been resumed following the urgent cabinet reshuffle - it was getting a bit boring with Clarke managing to avoid any kind of limelight whatsoever (until recently).

The replacement arse home secretary, John Reid, now seems to be in full "bloody foreigners" swing, relying greatly on "circumstantial evidence" to bring Al-Quaeda into the 7/7 picture.

There are, of course, some problems with the apparent independence of the 7/7 attacks - not problems frmo an investigative nature, but of a political consequence nature.

Firstly, if bombers are independent then all of a sudden that makes tracking them very difficult indeed. If people are spurred on by media broadcasts rather than, say, personal communication with terrorist agencies, training camps, etc, then tracing connections through network profiles (wiretaps, e-mail snooping, location-monitoring, etc) suddenly becomes next-to-useless.

But secondly, it swings the finger of blame around again. All of a sudden, "extremist terrorists" can no longer be blamed. The "home-grown" effect - British terrorists on British soil against British civilians - is twofold. One, the politicians will spin it as a "culture" of violence "infecting" our otherwise lovely society. But two (more importantly) there's that direct link between what the politicians are actually doing, and how people are reacting. In many ways, then, there's not much of a philosophical divide between all them people willing to march through London in disappointment at the ruling elite's plans, and all them people willing to blow themselves up. Reaction.

Hence why the ISC report focused on resources, not reasons - intelligence, rather than Iraq. The government have been found "clean" yet again, and all of this nastiness would have happened if we had or had not invaded foreign countries, despite what the terrorists say.

The upshot of this is, of course, tighter rein. More control over possible suspects (a definition which spreads even wider, now that it can't be predicted through social links), more ability to sort the guilty from the possibly guilty, and more propaganda to portray people with a bone to pick as an evil menace.

Perhaps the old British tradition of sitting down and having a nice cup of tea and a chat should be re-considered?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Boarding passes: tickets to everything

Interesting Guardian Article featuring Adam Laurie, on identity leakage via a discarded boarding pass. Well worth reading, as it highlights a number of important aspects and consequences of the ubiquity of data-collection and data-sharing.

"The problem here is that a commercial organisation is being given the task of collecting data on behalf of a foreign government, for which it gets no financial reward, and which offers no business benefit in return," says Laurie. "Naturally, in such a case, they will seek to minimise their costs, which they do by handing the problem off to the passengers themselves. This has the neat side-effect of also handing off liability for data errors.

This raises 2 points - firstly, that as noted, privacy offers little direct return on investment - thus, companies easily become blasé about privacy for the same reason that many companies are blasé: about network security - there's no direct benefit to spending the cash. Privacy and security both inherently only cost when the status quo is disrupted and something goes very very wrong - but usually by then, it's too late.

Secondly, handing data entry off to consumers entails a further aspect - that of convenience. As with many IT systems, convenience is often offered in place of security, rather than in addition to it (although that's not to say the two are inherently mutually exclusive). As the data being used to construct profiles of individuals moves further along the chain and certain attributes are filtered out, so there is less requirement to maintain stringency and accuracy in both integrity of the data, and access to it.

The Guardian rightly draws parallels with the ID Scheme. Think carefully about where data will end up, even with safeguards at each individual level.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The system gets bigger...

Quick note. Spy Blog has info and questions on the "demise" of the Citizen Information Project, now that the Identity System Bill has gone through.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Making Jack a Dull Boy

This is good - the National Union of Teachers (NUT) recognise the importance of playing, and the possible demise of it in schools. In a time when "work-life balance" is being spouted by every street corner lifecoach around, and programmes about getting away from stuffiness are all the rage, why shouldn't children get a slice of the cake too?

Somewhere along the line, someone discovered that you could push people to limits. Tell people they want money for long enough, and they'll throw themselves in the road for you. Now work out that "telling" involves an entire educational system - work hard, play soft, and you'll get the magic beans at the end of the day - and you start to put the system into overdrive.

Is play dangerous? If it is indeed "imaginative" then how does that affect children? Doesn't imagination involve coming up with your own thoughts, developing your own sense of who you are? Not that I'm cynical of the "education" system (oh, ok, I am really), but the whole idea of "playfulness" really goes against the hard-working, hard-shopping, economic grain that the majority of the system seems to foster.

There's a fine line between "playfulness" and "rebellious" or "non-serious", for example. In the mind of the politician (or, indeed, the CEO, etc), "targets" and "imagination" are at loggerheads. The term "Imagination" conjures up images of crazy potheads deciding that plugging the PC into a cat would be "a great idea". The twist is that the same sense of imagination is needed - shock, horror, et al - to be creative, which is where all that lovely "innovation" that consultants love to talk about comes from. Heh.

Anyway, the NUT actually ties all this in with self-harm, which is an interesting link:

"General secretary Steve Sinnott said there was "increasing evidence of the damage to children's health and well-being" - with more self-harm among teenagers."

I'd love to see the research behind this. Maybe we're just breeding a nation of Goths.

(On a sidenote, this is one of the best ideas I've ever seen...)

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Welcome to the Terrordome

The Terrorism Act has arrived today.

"(3) For the purposes of this section a publication is a terrorist publication ... if matter contained in it is likely-

(a) to be understood, by some or all of the persons to whom it is or may become available as a consequence of that conduct, as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to them to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism; ...

-- Part 1, section 2

"I pursue my enemies and overtake them;
I will not turn back till I have destroyed them.
I strike them down, and they cannot rise;
they fall defeated at my feet.
You have girded me with strength for the battle;
you have cast down my adversaries beneath me;
you have put my enemies to flight.
I destroy those who hate me;
they cry out, but there is none to help them;
they cry to the LORD, but he does not answer.
I beat them small like dust before the wind;
I trample them like mud in the streets.

-- Psalm 18

This is after a quarter of an hour flicking through a Bible, and adopting "terrorism" to infer violence. More time, and a wider definition (i.e. the legal definition), and I'm sure there would be reasonable grounds to have most things banned. An interesting exercise, I think.

(On a side note, is it illegal to encourage yourself to commit acts of terrorism? My own writing is certainly "available" to me...)

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Problems with Profiling

The Observer hits a few top stories that tie in well together today - both relate to profiling, and the weaknesses inherent in placing so much trust in such a system.

The first, that a leaked inquiry reveals there was no direct Al-Quaeda link to the 7/7 bombs, highlights the main problem with profiling - that data within the system is only useful/valid so long as the factors "outside" of the system are "stable" too.

A little confusing? OK, in other words, if you have a system set up to find potential terrorists based on who's talking to whom, it only works so long as potential terrorists ONLY talk to existing known ones, to put it simply.

The problem we have now, though, is that the consequences of political action after political action have led to a number of people turning to terrorism independently (see Guardian story, and much older article). Profiling is no good at picking up "isolated" cells like this. The problem is further compounded when one remembers (or, in the case of many politicians, "realises") that you don't actually need to be a potential Peer to make a bomb. (Hell, you don't even need more than about 50p to just pretend to have a bomb, which would shut a station down for an hour or two.)

For too long, "terrorist training camps" and "terrorist networks" have been blamed for the spread of terrorism. But "terrorism" in its current form is nothing more than simple violence, which is as old as the hills. The true causes of violence have been around forever for anyone to "inquire" into, yet they continue to be ignored.

The second article, is both a reminder that a) profiling is highly dependent on the weakest link, and b) we look first to more profiling as the solution to the problems caused by a society of surveillance.

"Drivers use address scam to cheat speed cameras" picks up on a "loophole" (bug? feature?) involving the use of legitimate "business" addresses to avoid automatically-generated fines. By registering a car and its insurance at a "dummy" address, the Police have nowhere to look for the real owner.

Definitely a feature, but one that will probably be phased out as we continue the slide to be normalised, processable by the machine that looks over us. Proof comes at the end of the article:

"...the planned introduction of automatic number plate recognition cameras ... would be harder to deceive.

"A Home Office spokesman said the national identity register being introduced to back up planned ID cards would help...

Primed and ready for a surveillance state.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Some privacy quotations

A couple of quotes on privacy for the weekend, taken from a paper by Michael Curry entitled "The Digital Individual and the Private Realm"*. The first is a reminder on the importance of privacy, and why people who claim that "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" are just wrong. The second is a reminder about how we deal with memories, the past, and change in ourselves...

"...the private realm performs important functions in the life of the individual and the group. It is in private that people have the opportunity to become individuals in the sense that we think of the term."

"We all assume that there are things about us that others will forget, and we are thereby able to feel that we live in a society where there is the possibility of redemption."

* Wow, I get paid to read this stuff? Something went right somewhere... ;)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

We're already there

Further to my last post on social mapping, one thing I've been meaning to blog recently is the "Targeting Benefit Fraud" advertising campaign being run by the DWP. Some adverts are available from the above site.

The slogans run along these lines: "We can compare all sorts of information. So if you're not completely honest, we'll find out." Another one notes that, "We can compare information across government departments", to the same effect. We can see, then, that it's not as if such profiling of the individual is a surreptitious, covert operation.

The tones of the ads are both ominous and a forebearer of how the relationship between government and individual will continue to develop. Technology is here. Currently, it's being used in areas where people have responsibility to the government - i.e. accurate reporting and fraud avoidance. Curiously, it's these areas (where the technology already supposedly is in place) that ID cards are supposed to extend into as well, so perhaps there's some overlap planned there.

Honesty is a funny thing, linked intrinsically with trust. Technology used as it is replaces the need for the trust that we're used to, or at least it's supposed to (as there may be other means to fool the system). A false sense of security aside, perhaps there's nothing wrong with technology used in this way - after all, fraudsters are basically freeriders in the ubiquitous public system.

The slightly scary thing is that such a line - that we're no longer responsibile for our own responsibility, as it were - is now completely, tacitly accepted by the general population. The shift in power has already been made, and no-one's taken any notice.

This is the split between Orwellian vision and reality. 1984 presents a picture so obviously, drastically different to our "own" - an image designed and intended to shock - that we focus on that as what to "look out for" in a Big Brother government. But the people in Orwell's Airstrip One world are obviously asleep to that which controls them. Control comes slowly, and keeping an eye out for it is mostly like watching paint dry - change happens, but we're too busy watching other, "more interesting" stuff at the time, all the time.

It's only a small jump from technology looking to catch traditional fraudsters, to that which seeks to monitor all interactions of importance, for reasons stated previously. The important thing is that we're already half way there, and that going backwards is a lot harder than forwards.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Social Cartography: Mapping the Electorate

Yesterday I wrote another lovely letter about ID cards to my MP - I figured it was fun to strike while the topic is hot.

I'm blogging it here as I think it sums up quite nicely the main reason why I hate the Bill. Namely, when people say that the ID Bill represents "a fundamental shift in the relationship between the citizen and the state", the horrendous thing is not (completely) that the government can see what each individual is doing. The horrendous, yet little-discussed threat is that the government is being handed a map of interpersonal communication and interaction on a total scale. Thus, even if I can see what information the government has "on" me, I am still lacking some information that they have the rights to - information about how I fit in with everyone else.

Why is this a drastic alteration in the state-citizen relationship? Because links are everything. We are social creatures - indeed, governments (along with firms, organisations, schools and unions) are born from our social nature. But these links are complex, and we generally have a difficult time understanding them simply because they are bigger than any single individual. But under a national database of "trusted" contact linkages, the people that "own" the data as a whole suddenly get a very fresh look at how things work.

Take a look at visual complexity to get an idea of how important such maps are - for example, check out the Internet traffic flow map or (more relevantly) the online community map. By tracing the points of contact - the links along which interaction and, by implication, information, trust and friendship are exchanged - you can form an image (whether as a 2D JPG or a notional database structure) to determine strong points and weak points, direction of informational flow, etc. This is the beauty of maps. Once you know what the major bridges are and what routes exist, it becomes extremely easy to start disrupting the network, either by taking out the nodes themselves, or (if that proves too "high publicity") just severing the links.

Thus, the ID Bill represents, effectively, a very feasible form of social chemistry - by which I do not mean a scientifically proven method for MPs to attract members from the opposite benches gender with. Just as we, as a culture, have learnt to control our environment through an understanding of the "networks" of molecules, particles, forces, etc, so now do we have the tools available to start a similar understanding of how our own structures work.

In order to arrive at that comprehension, we need to trace the links and the flows that we see only from our own point of view every day. If ID cards - whether they have PINs, biometrics or nothing more than visual validation - are introduced on a large scale, not only will we have a system that gives us a completely false sense of security (as people without ID cards* won't be part of the system, plus there will always be alternative networks to route information** through), but we'll have one that hands this level of mapping to a government who have no political or legal need to share it with the rest of us.

Will it get abused? The future is uncertain. But democracies are all about uncertainty - hence the call for accountability, transparency and involvement. Why, then, are we taking the risk of losing out on this? Why are we prepared to trust the any government with this in particular, especially when public confidence in our elected is at a generally all-time low?

* i.e. The rest of the world. For now.
** Where information = money, loans, etc.

Addendum: Bah, last time I use that particular blog-posting tool. Apologies to anyone who tried to read it before linebreaks were re-introduced...

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Little News Round-up, and Linguistic Battles

A quick few news links...

The FT reports that ID cards could have PINs* (not PIN number numbers), which would extend the range of verification techniques, all the way from a quick visual check, through PINs, to biometric validation (although there's no reason why you need the card for this one, if you're connected to the central database).

(* N.B. The article is supposed to be limited access, but in the hardcopy version, it stopped where the preview stops anyway...)

The hacker in me thinks that more complex security = much more chance of a "way in", or around the system, especially when it comes to automated validation. A system can be set-up for both a "simple" (PIN) check and an "advanced" (biometric) check, with the more advanced one being mandated at the human level, so route round the human (weak) side of things, and it's all of a sudden a lot easier to validate "yourself". Danger, Will Robinson.

Local rag, The Argus had a couple of interesting stories the other day: An apparent increase in "yob" culture" in Brighton, and a note on a Home Office report that says Brighton has 20,000 CCTV cameras, 3rd only to London and Manchester.

No attempt seems to have been made to link the two stories up, but a Liberty spokesperson hints at the problematic limitations of using observation to control behaviour:

"People often feel very uncomfortable being surrounded by hundreds of cameras and in our opinion they often do very little other than monitor innocent citizens."

"Innocent" citizens, maybe. Unfortunately, insobriety has a peculiar effect, freeing us from those social inhibitions that act upon us to regulate our behaviour as we perceive ourselves to be perceived by others. The effect that beer has which results in being able to sing loudly at 3am is exactly the same effect which prevents us from worrying so much about being monitored on CCTV. Indeed, if you believe the TV documentaries, the presence of a camera nearby can often accentuate the urge for exhibitionist behaviour.

In short, CCTV is a social phenomenon, not a technological one - but alcohol is a "cure" for that exact same aspect of "monnitoring", whether it's a solution for monitoring in the workplace, or monitoring elsewhere.

A final observation is also to be made regarding the last story here and the current tennis match over ID Cards between the 2 houses. In one, the debate is centred around the definition of "torture", while in the other the debate is around the definition of "voluntary". I've touched on this before, but the use of language is increasingly important in politics, just as it is in marketing. Accessibility to policy and accountability depends on understanding, shared comprehension. Hammering out this comprehension through language that means the same thing on both sides of the fence is essential, but keep an eye out for its abuse...

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Evidence vs Suspicion

Jack Straw manages to avoid investigation into rendition flights by shifting the burden of proof, claiming that if it had been going on, "it is a fair bet that somebody would have spotted this". In other words, if you can hide something well enough (reading "hide" equally as "repress", "obscure", "mock" or "plain ignore") then it might as well not be happening, and in that case there's no need to check it out.

Precaution is a funny word. In a time when more and more people are being tagged as suspicious until proven innocent, precaution is becoming a way of life. (Precaution and paranoia often start to get blurred too, but that's for another post.) Yet here, once again, we can see it's one rule for the masses, and another for the boys in charge.

Suspicion and evidence are 2 very different things, but the way things are going, the latter will soon be the de jure of the people in charge of the investigations, while the rest of us, whose "power" extends to an exercise in formality once every 4 years, gets left with the fear.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Charged with possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist.

Anyone got a list of information that might be "useful" to a terrorist? How about bus timetables?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Sun Tzu's Art of Prayer?

A quick note on the Blair's God stuff - which seems to be keeping the media (ok, the BBC - haven't checked much of the papers out) on track to only highlight one side of the issue - the moral side. Blair's always played the moralistic trump card over the question of judicial legality, which has succeeded in pushing the debate further away from the military/diplomacy side.

Reg Keys does get it though:

Reg Keys ... said Mr Blair was "using God as a get-out for total strategic failure"

Yup. It doesn't completely matter why you went to war. There are further questions about why it went so badly wrong once the decision had been made.

Researchers may want to compare the decision to "tactics" used to deploy IT in government departments. Hint: "Visionaries" only see what they want to see. Reality is a harsh judge of dreamers.

P.S. Things are a bit quiet here recently. I'm still very much thinking about what's involved with technology and politics - moreso than ever, and a lot of the energy is going into much "larger" (bigger-than-blog) thinking, such as essays for academia. Hopefully the two worlds will collide painfully soon enough.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Guantanamo not British

The UK Government would never have set up Guantanamo Bay, says Lord Falconer. No, we would call it something different.

Smell the propaganda machine distancing the UK from the US.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Hallucinations for the believers only

Excellent - hallucinatory tea fine for "talking to God" purposes. In America. The NY Times reports that "... the government's "bold argument" that the Controlled Substances Act, the basic federal narcotics law, "simply admits of no exceptions" could not be reconciled either with the religious freedom law or with administrative practice under the act itself."
The quote from the above article from Chief Justice Roberts' opinion is also one worth noting:
"The government's argument echoes the classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I'll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions."

He then went on to say that the very point of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was to require consideration, on a case-by-case basis, of claims to religious-based exemptions from laws of general applicability.

I find it... amusing that faith - rather than, say, responsibility, "scientific evidence" or medical relief (although I'm never sure where we've got to on that last one) - is the grounds upon which laws can be discriminatorily applied. Perhaps in today's world, what we profess to believe is more powerful than who we actually are. Perhaps the hidden religious depths behind most world leaders spark a seed of mutual recognition, and the fear of hypocrisy. A perfectly mature, responsible individual can be denied the use of somethig potentially dangerous simply because it's for her or his own sake. If you have the chutzpah to proclaim transcendence, though, then you might have a chance.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Jiminy Cricket wears a curly wig

In Austria, David Irving is sentenced to 3 years for denying the Holocaust in an interview 17 years ago. Since then, he's changed his mind:
"I said that then based on my knowledge at the time, but by 1991 when I came across the Eichmann papers, I wasn't saying that anymore and I wouldn't say that now," Irving told the court.

Even Deborah Lipstadt, who Irving tried to sue for libel in the UK in 2000, recognises the ridiculous of the situation:
"I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don't believe in winning battles via censorship... The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth"

Personally, as a commentator, I don't profess to have any historical knowledge on the matter. On this point, I freely admit to believing in something merely because others have told me about it. While I like to question assumptions, it would become rather silly to disbelieve everything and anything until I had verified it with my own eyes.

But I do indeed digress. Or do I? The question, then, is whether history is a science, or an art. The science of determining what has happened, or the art of maintaining an archive, and drawing links and lines of cause and effect through time. In the end, of course, it will be a bit of both - we need to establish truth, but we also need to understand where we have come from. The important point is to learn from our past.

But the concern here, legally speaking, is this split between the two - how much one can risk affronting emotion in the search for knowledge. Nobody argues with the idea that much of history is written by the winners, which is effectively another way of saying that history becomes what people want it to become. Memories are filled with soul, and our souls are generated from our memories.

I haven't time to delve to deeply into Irving's past, and his legal clashes with Lipstadt. If, as he says, he has changed his tune following his own, personal discovery of further "evidence", then he is acting as a scientist. Lipstadt is right to point out that this is a much preferred method of resolution than "simple" censorship.

Yet with the gradual onslaught of the psychological and juridical science domains, we are left increasingly with a view of the individual as an automata. We are painted as being rational and "free" so long as we remain on societal track. Our decisions are our own. But once we enter the justice system, quite often we lose this shield of perceived "freedom". Our actions are unhelpable, our motivations are driven by forces we cannot control, forces that exist naturally but that somehow occur outside of sense of "choice".

Increasingly, then, a single action is extrapolated into our mindset in totality. Pop Media amplifies this "dehumanisation", turning the middle aged man who accidentally catches sight of a 14-year-old girl in a short skirt into a raging paedophile. We have mastered the links between "effect" and "cause" and, because we have statistics to prove it, we believe the link and nothing more. Or less.

What are the implications for the idea of human fallibility, for occasional frailty? When we end up with a judicial system that becomes so keen to extract (penal) guilt from intention, and that loses the power to believe in the reversibility of the human "conscience"? If Irving is basing his opinion on what he knows, and changes his opinion accordingly, but still gets 3 years for what he now knows is wrong, where does that leave the rest of us? How can we even trust history so long as it has some emotional content to it?

Clay Shirky brought this up as the most dangerous idea for coming decades. Richard Veryard notices move from questioning to employability in education. Just how easy is it to forget that we may actually have some control over ourselves, and some say in the world we live in?

Monday, February 13, 2006

Some new ground, but same old arguments

Hurrah, some movement. New legislation will be required to make ID cards compulsory. Meanwhile, Blair trots out the usual rubbish:

"People have this idea that there's a problem in civil liberties with people having an identity card and an identity registered today when across all walks of our life this is happening."

Politicians just don't get this idea that it's not how necessarily much information is out there about you - it's about who has access to how much in one go. Yes, there are serious concerns abut publically-available information (via Google, for example), which need to be addressed. Gathering all the information together under the eyes of a pompous government isn't an "inevitable" step in the slightest.

Sainsbury's do not need to know how often I visit the Doctor's, just as insurance companies are not allowed to know the results of genetic tests for diseases. This is a much, much bigger issue than people realise, or that I have time for today. Maybe soon.

Wake up to Brown's terror threat

Gordon Brown plays the "fear for your lives" card this weekend, a day before votes are due to be cast on the latest round of the ID card push. How odd. Time and time again, the Home Office have told us that ID cards were never intended to be a panacea or a sole solution for terrorism, witness:

"I must emphasise that we have never said that the identity cards scheme is intended to be the sole solution to ... terrorism. The scheme is therefore not being designed to be the primary method of combating these problems." - letter from Des Browne, 13 Jan 2005. Emphasis mine.

Yet on Radio 4's Today, Brown's cited as saying:

"If you take the Ricin plot ... there were 12 main suspects, they had 120 separate identities ... If you take one of the 11 September terrorists in America, he was operating with 20 false identities so he could not be spotted.

"It is absolutely crucial to the disruption of terrorism that you can spot quickly where multiple identities are being used.

Well, make up your minds. Do you want us to be scared or at ease?

The above Today quote is from an article concerning Blair missing the vote due to technical difficulties - his plane's engine has a problem. That's the problem with technlogy, isn't it? It always fails just at the most inopportune moments. Maybe it's a hint.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Meanwhile, back in UKPS...

Blogging must go in waves... nothing for ages, then about 3 in a day.

I've finally gotten around to reading - and recommending - an article from the Register last week about the introduction of passport biometrics and its link with ID Cards.

Having just watched an episode of "Yes, Minister", my policynical-radar is twitching, and now I realise it would be wrong to think that Whitehall doesn't have some arguments-in-preparation going on. The article is pretty lengthy, but the gist of it is that much of what the ID card promises (biometrics, databases, etc) is already underway for passports anyway. Once it's in place, saying "oh, but we already have 75% of the infrastructure in place" will probably become a very convincing argument. Who wants to scrap a plan once the money's been spent on it? And who gives a fiddling monkey about what effects it'll have aside from the financials?

Not us, hum.

Reading for Today

If you read one thing today (apart from this post), make it Chick Yog's post on ideas, supermarkets, political debate and jet-propelled nurses:

Chicken Yoghurt: Battlefield Medicine

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

An ID card for each identity

A "curious" BBC news story from yesterday: Transsexuals 'to get 2 ID cards':

Transsexuals who have yet to have a sex-change operation will be entitled to two ID cards, Home Office Minister Lady Scotland of Asthal has said.

One would be in their gender at birth and the other in their legally-acquired "gender of designation".

It doesn't make clear whether this is as a "side-effect" of the proposed legislation, or a "feature" that the Lords have introduced. Alas, I haven't the time to check Hansard on it ("peer review", a-harr), so consider this a "bookmark for later" post.

The idea of what constitutes a unique "identity" is certainly a fascinating one...

Monday, January 30, 2006

Why Britain Sucks: The "Education" Rant

A productive, informed, happy nation (IMHO) is built upon a foundation of education - education that informs, but also education that encourages both participation and self-reliance. Unfortunately, there's a rather large study that says we're getting less intelligent.

Anyone that's actually been in the education system (rather than merely deciding what the fad subject is this year and trying to get more girls to do it) will be aware of the effect that testing has - and I highlight "effect" because this is why we're "deliberately" dumbed down. The more tests we're given, and the more league tables that depend on the tests there are, the more people are "configured" to optimise test performance by whatever means necessary. The very act of measurement has a very real effect on that being measured.

It's the same with University "Research Assessment Exercises" (RAEs), with driving tests, and possibly even with dental check-ups. You do what you can to pass, then go your own way afterwards. The amount to which education affects your progress after that could be said to be inversely proportional to the effort it's putting in to getting you through those tests. The more tests you have, the less you actually think.

But here's the scary thing. We live in a world where numbers, comparisons and measurements are the driving force of the future. When we talk about knowledge-based societies, we're talking about "tangible", codified knowledge that other people can pick up on, that can be used to make judgements, that can be fed into a computer and used to create charts or diagrams or what-have-you. So long as databases are the premium way of assessing the "health" of a nation, we will be subjected to quantitative tests which will have to be logically-tied to performance.

This means that there must be a simple mapping, from knowledge, to judgement. Things are either right or wrong. There is no longer an art or a craft to working out how well an individual is doing for themselves, nor where their future potential lies, there is only how they react under the test conditions, and how well they "rate" against others of the same classification scheme (gender, age, race, height, social background, medical discrepancies).

This is a system which categorises, sorts, and filters - a "classification" system, not an educational one. The lucky go on to become millionaires. The unlucky are squabbled over by a few persistents who have a million to share out amongst them. But the terms of existence are decided in advance, by the people who just have to have a way of working out who's better than who.

The problem is, selection criteria are subjective. Who defines success? Why, the already-successful, of course.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Chickens coming home to roost

According to today's Independent, MPs are getting a little upset about losing their right (or "privelige" today) to not be wiretapped.
MPs should be treated in the same way as other citizens and will be given the same safeguards against wrongful tapping, the Prime Minister will say.

While he's got the right stick - MPs are just people, after all, and shouldn't necessarily be afforded all kinds of fancies - he gets completely the wrong end of the stick.

It's funny, isn't it? You spend all this time complaining to MPs about privacy of the individual and such, and they bat you away citing terror concerns. Bollocks to 'em, I say. If the only time they make a stand for "principles" is when it's their skin at stake, then they're getting as much as they deserve. Perhaps there is some kind of justice in the world after all...

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Blair Blathers Blindly

What the frigging ferrets..? I go off, read some books, and when I come back all the party leaders are "podcasting" like mad! Ah, they're all so trendy and hip. I wish I was like them. Next thing you know, they'll have webpages.

But, digression in progress. I haven't bothered to listen to the Telegraph's Cameron podcast yet. Plenty time. I have grabbed the Prime Minister from the clutching grasp of the Sun though, and proceeded to vomit casually all over my keyboard. Of cours,e the problem with Podcasts is there's generally very little you can copy and paste from them. So I'm going to have to do some of my own transcripting to induce you into a similar vomit-involved situation. Fortunately, it's not very long. Probably something to do with attention spans of the target audience. I'll leave in some choice umms, but otherwise be a little more sporting than the "Just a Minute" style. I'll also leave it uninterrupted, and add my comments at the end. Here goes. Oh, and it's Pascoe-Watson, not Basket-Watson as I heard first time.

George Pascoe-Watson: This is George-Pascoe Watson, the Sun's political editor, with the Prime Minister Tony Blair in the heart of Downing Street, with the Sun's first ever podcast. Mr Blair, how would you encourage Sun readers to get involved in identifying the problem yobs in society?

Prime Minister: We're only going to be able to beat this problem if we all work together, and the vast majority of families and people in this country play by the rules. But there are a small minority who make life misery for their neighbours, and communities. And for a long time they believed they could get away with this bad behaviour. Either because they think the victims are too frightened to report them, or they feel nothing will be done even if they did report them. Slowly, in commmunities up and down the land, these thugs are learning that the rules are changing. Police, councils and local people are using the new powers we've given them to put the decent majority back in charge of their neighbourhoods. And where these powers are being used, they're having a dramatic impact. And I want to see them used right across the country. But I recognise there's still a great deal to do, so yesterday I announced a raft of new measures to step up the drive against anti-social behaviour, and that's also why I welcome the Sun campaign to help its readers identify those people who are causing real trouble in their communities. We'll make sure these names are passed on in complete confidence to the authorities, who will take action if it's needed. None of us alone, not even government can put respect back at the heart of our communities. but acting together, we can and we will.

GPW: So you actually want Sun readers whose lives are often blighted by these, uh, thugs to actually take responsibility for their communities?

PM: Yes, and realise that we're there and will back them up. Because often people are very frightened to shop people when they've got a situation where someone is perhaps causing a persistent nuisance to them, making their life difficult or hell, or they're maybe using a house in the street for drug dealing, or various kinds of anti-social behaviour, and this is a way that people can pass on this information, and then it can be checked out by the authorities. And, you know I think it's important to realise that we're giving summary powers to the police and local authorities to act, and these are tough powers. Now in the end, though, it only works if everyone's working together. Not just government giving the resources and the powers, but police and the local authorities and local people backing it up.

GPW: So it's very important that people realise you're giving them a sense of, uh, responsibility for the societies in which they live?

PM: Yes, because in the end, I can't do it sitting in Downing Street...

GPW: You can't, you can't go down their street and ...

PM: No, no, you know, sometimes you wish you could, but you can't. But it's up to people to work with the authorities and we're trying therefore to give them this opportunity to contact the authorities in confidence, and to realise that we are actually there, on their side, giving these new powers, and we can use them.

GPW: I think it's an important point you make - that people, for a long time, have felt that they are powerless to act. And you're saying to them, "you're not powerless to act, you know, here's an opportunity"

PM: Yes, I mean, some of the new powers - for example a pub or a club that's continually the scene of rowdy scenes outside with fighting and drunken behaviour, the police will have the power to shut the club - or pub - and trigger a review of their entire licence. Umm, people who use their home for persistent anti-social behaviour will be evicted - and this can happen even for a private property - if they carry on causing absolute mayhem in their local community - it can be done. Umm, where you've got gangs of youths hanging around and they're refusing to disperse, you can put fixed penalty notices on them, which will be up to 100 pounds now. Where drug dealers are, um, you know, driving down the street in a fancy car with a lot of cash on them, the police will be able to take the cash, uh, and the drug dealer will have to - or the suspected drug dealer - will have to come and prove that they got it lawfully, to get it back. You know, these powers are *tough*. Umm, where there are parents out with their kids in the middle of the day when their kids should be at school, you know, they can be subject to penalties...

GPW: Truancy is something else you're tackling today...

PM: Yeah, because it's important - I mean, this is a responsibility, of course, of police and local authorities, but primarily it's a responsibility of parents to make sure they get their kids to school...

GPW: And you basically want to tell Sun readers that you are on their side today?

PM: It's essential for people to realise thet we are there, on their side, to help get this done. We can't do it all ourselves, but we can enable people to do it for themselves.

GPW: Prime Minister, thank you very much.

PM: Thank you.

Phew. OK, well I should come clean first off, and admit that I haven't been keeping up with this respect malarkey the last couple of days. Background reading will be here and here, to start with.

But in between the fawning over the PM that Pascoe-Watson does (they interrupt each other, so there's less chance that they're the same person, but then Beavis and Butthead were the same guy...), Blair reveals his own desperation to look like he's doing something, yet again. I'm tough, I'm harsh, but I reward the good and love me oh Sun readers love me etc etc.

Unfortunately, he also shows just how muddled up he is, and just how misguided New Labour's crappy Old Thinking is.

Respect and Power are the two words you want to pay attention to here, for they're both interlinked more than anyone makes out. For instance, if I have power over you, then I have no need to respect you. Blair has a lot of power over the people of Britain, but I don't see him paying them/us much respect either. Otherwise we might have a decent voting system and a criminal justice system (rather than simply a criminal system). If he wants us to respect him for the "good work" he's putting in to make our lives nicer, then he's going to have to do a lot better than the simpering, crawling "oh look, if we work together we can sort this mess out" shite:

"We're only going to be able to beat this problem if we all work together..."

" the end, though, it only works if everyone's working together..."

"'s up to people to work with the authorities..."

Oh hurrah, some responsibility? In this day and age? Heavens, responsibility's about the one thing that can save us now - responsibility to have some say over how things are run, over what happens in our neighbourhoods, responsibility for each other. So Tony's going to hand it to us is he? Bollocks he is. This sums it all up in a nutshell:

"I welcome the Sun campaign to help its readers identify those people who are causing real trouble in their communities. We'll make sure these names are passed on in complete confidence to the authorities, who will take action if it's needed."

That's right. You do the "shopping", and we'll actually handle things. You tell us what's wrong in your community, and we'll take it from there, send the boys in black in and move the troublemakers on (to do it somewhere else). Sorted. That's the responsibility you have. Telltale. Want to actually take measures to improve your neighbourhood, get people involved locally rather than excluding them, kicking them on to a soon-to-be-turned-into-a-prison community? Forget that, just let us know, and we'll arrest the bleeders.

Some people will naturally claim that tough justice, zero-tolerance, etc is a fair way forward. Here's one that argues it on the grounds of efficiency. This might be valid in some situations, but to argue for it in all cases of "anti-social" behaviour is missing the Big Picture That Sits On Your Face And Laughs.

The Telegraph's leader comment is on the right track:

"respect" has a different meaning among Britain's urban youth to that intended by Tony Blair. The word refers to the hierarchy of riches and violence that raises such terrible role models for the young; it is the code by which the weak must make way for the strong and ill-gotten wealth is preferred to honest graft.

It's no coincidence that while we are growing slack on the civility side of things (which is what Blair probably means instead), we are increasingly immersing ourselves in a culture where power, fame and money have become the benchmarks for success.

This is not a Hollywood image. This is a very real, fundamental set of values that we are plunged into the moment we're born. It's not just rap stars and DJs that give us these values. We see business-people, flanked by glass-fronted London tower-blocks, jumping in their chauffeur-driven limos, driving to their 3-kitchen country home at the weekends. We have TV programmes about buying and selling houses for profit, magazines on how to be the sexiest person ever, and adverts at every corner that are just crying out for shiny printing to be invented.

The problem is that these are all the things that Blair wants. An ever-growing economy relies on people making more and more money, which requires people to buy more and more stuff, which means that riches become increasingly a sign of status. Flash buildings are symbols of fiscal performance, international emblems that are designed to reflect something that we have and others don't.

Is it any surprise, then, that the people who most often end up embroiled in drunken, rowdy (if not maliciously-intended - I've been there...), "yobbish" antics are the very same people who hire out SUV limos for birthdays, who lust after the latest bling technology, and who will quite happily sell out their "acquaintances" for a shot at the "good life"? I don't care if I'm over-generalising. I'm saying that this happens, and on a large scale because it's what's expected.

This is the generation growing up surrounded by a competitive world, and in harsh (global, even) competition, if you respect people you don't need to, you're going to lose. That's why this backwards-arsed country is going to get far worse before any "tough measures" clear it up. The problem is Blair's too blind to tie the two together.