Tag Archives: surveillance

Google books – philanthropy or piracy?


In the Observer on 30th Augsut, William Skidelsky has added a contribution to the debate about Google’s plans to create the world’s biggest online library.  As he comments “Google has already scanned 10 million books in its bid to digitise the contents of the world’s major libraries, but a copyright battle now threatens the project, with Amazon and Microsoft joining authors and publishers opposed to the scheme”.

As he points out, Google claims that they are doing this for the good of society.  However, he notes that opponents have been critical on the grounds that:

  • “First, they have questioned whether the primary responsibility for digitally archiving the world’s books should be allowed to fall to a commercial company”, and
  • “The second, related criticism is that Google’s scanning of books is actually illegal”

As he concludes, “No one knows the precise use Google will make of the intellectual property it has gained by scanning the world’s library books, and the truth, as Gleick points out, is that the company probably doesn’t even know itself. But what is certain is that, in some way or another, Google’s entrance into digital bookselling will have a significant impact on the book world in years to come”.

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Freedom on the Net


For those who may not have read it yet, Freedom House’s publication entitled Freedom on the Net: a Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media and published in April 2009, provides a very valuable assessment of the balance of interests in the spread of the Internet and mobile telephony across the world.

As Freedom House’s blurb says, “As internet and mobile phone use explodes worldwide, governments are adopting new and multiple means for controlling these technologies that go far beyond technical filtering. Freedom on the Net provides a comprehensive look at these emerging tactics, raising concern over trends such as the “outsourcing of censorship” to private companies, the use of surveillance and the manipulation of online conversations by undercover agents. The study covers both repressive countries such as China and Iran and democratic ones such as India and the United Kingdom, finding some degree of internet censorship and control in all 15 nations studied.”

The overview essay by Karin Deutsch Karlekar and Sarah G. Cook argues that there is a growing diversity of threats to internet freedom and that governments have responded to the spread of new media by introducing new measures to control, regulate and censor content.  As they conclude “In a fast-changing digital world, vigilance is required if we are to ensure continued freedom on the net.”

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Digital Britain


The UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (I still think this is a crazy mixture, but…)  published its final report on Digital Britain on 16th June 2009.  It claims that “The Digital Britain Report is the Government’s strategic vision for ensuring that the UK is at the leading edge of the global digital economy. It is an example of industrial activism in a crucial growth sector. The report contains actions and recommendations to ensure first rate digital and communications infrastructure to promote and protect talent and innovation in our creative industries, to modernize TV and radio frameworks, and support local news, and it introduces policies to maximize the social and economic benefits from digital technologies”.

The key measures it recommends are:

  • A three-year National Plan to improve Digital Participation
  • Universal Access to today’s broadband services by 2012
  • Next Generation fund for investment in tomorrow’s broadband services
  • Digital radio upgrade by the end of 2015
  • mobile spectrum liberalisation, enhancing 3G coverage and accelerating Next Generation mobile services
  • robust legal and regulatory framework to combat Digital Piracy
  • support for public service content partnerships
  • a revised digital remit for Channel 4
  • consultation on funding options for national, regional and local news

One of the most interesting statements in the executive summary is that “For individuals a quiet revolution has delivered seamless connectivity almost everywhere. That revolution ranges from personal pocket libraries of music, audiovisual content and increasingly electronic literature on a scale inconceivable ten years ago; inexpensive broadband which allows efficient and family-friendly working patterns in the knowledge sector of the economy – and broadband at increasing speeds – the next generation of which, already available to nearly half Britain’s homes, allows us to send or receive 200 mp3 music files in five minutes, an entire Star Wars DVD in 3 minutes and the total digitised works of Charles Dickens in less than 10 minutes. It has given us access to a wide range of social networks, allowing us to share experiences and swap and create content. The digital revolution has also led to a huge expansion in the creation and availability of professional content. Today, the typical British consumer spends nearly half of their waking hours engaged in one form or another with the products and services of the communications sector”.  The report goes on to assert that “The UK is already a digitally enabled and to a significant degree digitally dependent economy and society. The Digital Britain Report aims to be a guide-path for how Britain can sustain its position as a leading digital economy and society”.

To my mind, the report is overly up-beat.  It fails satisfactorily to address the real challenges associated with a digital Britain, and especially:

  • it focuses primarily on the technological and economic dimensions – and not enough on the social, cultural and political issues raised by these
  • there is nothing overtly on the ethical and moral issues raised by this particular vision of a ‘digital Britain’ (‘ethics’ and ‘moral’ are words that are not even mentioned in the report)
  • although trying to grapple with some of the issues surrounding unequal access, its solutions are unlikely to have a significant impact on the lives of Britain’s poorest people and communities – the concept of a ‘digital divide’ is only mentioned three times, and there is no mention of words such as ‘inequalities’ or ‘inequality’; ‘equity’ is only mentioned twice.  The market cannot provide effective solutions for the most marginalised – and it should be the role of government to intervene to ensure that as many people as possible can benefit from the potential that such technologies can offer
  • insufficient attention is paid to the negative effects of the digital economy – in terms of the ways in which it reinforces power relationships, and enables ever greater ‘control’ and manipulation of the majority by the few.  The anarchic potential of the Internet is also insufficiently explored – and is treated negatively in the only place where it is addressed (“Most consumers, except the minority of the anarchic or those who believe in ‘freedom to’ without its counterbalancing ‘freedom from’, who believe in unsupported rights without countervailing duties, would prefer to behave lawfully if they can do so practically and with a sense of equity” p.110).  “Web 2.0” is likewise only mentioned once!
  • as I have argued elsewhere, one of the implications of Britain sustaining “its position as a leading digital economy and society” is that this will necessarily mean that it will relatively disadvantage those in poorer countries of the world.  Given my own interest in trying to ensure that poor people and marginalised communities can also truly benefit from digital communities, I am concerned by the complete lack of attention that this report pays to issues of ‘development’ – Africa is not mentioned at all, and ‘developing countries’ are only mentioned once to exemplify the impact of mobile ‘phones therein!  I wonder what colleagues in the UK’s Department for International Development have to say about this – another excellent example of lack of joined up government!

The UK government needs to understand that ICTs are about much more than simply the technology and the economy – if we are truly to use them to make the world a better place, we must emphasise the social, political and cultural aspects of their use much more than does this report on Digital Britain.

For other commentary in the UK press see:

  • James Ashton in the Times: A blurred vision for Digital Britain
  • Matthew Horsman in the Daily Telegraph: Only a sketchy road map of Digital Britain
  • BBC News: Digital Britain countdown begins

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UK Government announces that it has no plans to create a central database for storing communications data


The UK’s Home Office has recently announced that it no longer has any plans to create a centralised database to store all communciations data.  In its consultation paper presented to Parliament in April 2009, and entitled “Protecting the Public in a Changing Communications Environment“, the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith commented that “this consultation explicitly rules out the option of setting up a single store of information for use in relation to communications data”.  This is excellent news for all those concerned that the government was indeed considering establishing such a centralised database of all digital communication (see my comments in February about this). The consultation paper is a very important document, and lays out clearly the various options facing a government eager to get the balance right between privacy and security.

The consultation paper asserts that “The Government has no plans for a centralised database for storing all communications data.  An approach of this kind would require communications service providers to collect all the data required by the public authorities, and not only the data required for their business needs.  All of this communications data would then be passed to, retained in, and retrieved from, a single data store.  This could be the most effective technical solution to the challenges we face and would go furthest towards maintaining the current capability; but the Government recognises the privacy implications of a single store of communications data and does not, therefore, intend to pursue this approach”.

With reference to third party data, two approaches are identified as possible ways forward:

  • “The responsibility for collecting and retaining this additional third party data would fall on those communications providers such as the fixed line, mobile and WiFi operators, who own the network infrastructure”
  • “A further step would be for the communications service providers to process the third party communications data and match it with their own business data where it has elements in common; this would make easier the interpretation of that data if and when it were to be accessed by the public authorities”.

In the light of this, the government intends to legislate “to ensure that all data that public authorities might need, including third party data, is collected and retained by communication service providers; and that the retained data is further processed by communications service providers enabling specific requests by public authorities to be processed quickly and comprehensively”.

The government is particularly eager to receive responses on four main questions:

  • Q1  On the basis of this evidence and subject to current safeguards and oversight arrangements, do you agree that communications data is vital for law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies and emergency services in tackling serious crime, preventing terrorism and protecting the public? Found on page 22
  • Q2  Is it right for Government to maintain this capability by responding to the new communications environment? Found on page 22
  • Q3  Do you support the Government’s approach to maintaining our capabilities?  Which of the solutions should it adopt? Found on page 30
  • Q4   Do you believe that the safeguards outlined are sufficient for communications data in the future? Found on page 30

As the consultation paper concludes, “The challenge is to find a model which strikes the right balance between maximising public protection and the ability of the law enforcement and other authorities to do their jobs  to prevent and detect crime and protect the public, and minimising the intrusion into our private lives”.

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ContactPoint – the UK State is creating a database of all children


Along with many other parents across the UK, I have recently received a letter from one of my children’s schools informing me that legislation has just been passed “requiring Local Authorities to set up and run a nationwide database, known as ContactPoint, which will contain basic details about every child and young person under the age of 18 who is ordinarily resident in England”.

Why should this legislation have been passed?  Why is it compulsory?  Why should everyone have to be registered? In effect, as young people grow older, this database will eventually record information about everyone “normally resident” in the UK. It will provide yet another means through which the State collects private information about individuals, thereby enabling it to impose greater control over its citizens.

The ContactPoint website claims that ” ContactPoint will be the quick way for a practitioner to find out who else is working with the same child or young person, making it easier to deliver more coordinated support. ContactPoint is an online directory, available to authorised staff who need it to do their jobs, enabling the delivery of coordinated support for children and young people. It is also a vital tool to help safeguard children, helping to ensure that the right agencies are involved at the right time and children do not slip through the net”.

But does this require details on EVERY child in the UK to be recorded on a central database?  The passing of this legislation on 26th January gives rise to very great concern:

  1. Why should every child need to be registered?  Why does the state need to gain information about the name, address, date of birth, and contact details of all parents to be registered centrally?
  2. Given the inability of  the UK government to keep such data secure in the past, there are high risks that this personal information will become accessible to a wide range of people in the future.  Children will therefore be put at risk.
  3. There is no evidence that such a database will make any difference to early interventions when  children really do need the State to intervene to protect them
  4. Who really benefits from this?  Is it not the companies who have persuaded the Government to introduce such very expensive digital systems?
  5. What gives the State any right at all to collect such individual private information.

We must resist this ever great control by the state over its citizens – just because digital technologies enable us to do this, does not mean it is right.

Tim

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UK surveillance update…


The Times yesterday published another article on CCTV cameras and surveillance in the UK, noting that the frequently cited claim that there are 4.2 million CCTV cameras in use in the UK is based on a survey of only two streets in London seven years ago!  Police forces across the country are now being asked to locate and record the location of every camera in the country – so that they can be used to identify suspected ‘criminals’.

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Is the UK becoming a surveillance state?


The BBC has today highlighted a recent House of Lords’ debate, noting that:

‘Electronic surveillance and collection of personal data are “pervasive” in British society and threaten to undermine democracy, peers have warned. CCTV cameras and the DNA database were two examples of threats to privacy, the Lords constitution committee said. It called for compensation for people subject to illegal surveillance. The government said CCTV and DNA were “essential” to fight crime but Liberty said recent abuses of power meant “even the innocent have a lot to fear”‘.

The BBC report goes on to note that:

‘Human rights campaigners Liberty welcomed the report. Director Shami Chakrabarti said: “Liberty’s postbag suggests that the House of Lords is more in touch with public concerns that our elected government. “Over the past seven years we’ve been told ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ but a stream of data bungles and abuses of power suggest that even the innocent have a lot to fear.”‘

and

‘Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, urged the government to “reassert” its control over the use of data.He said: “Governments tend to think that gathering new information on citizens is a good thing. But that’s not true if our privacy is undermined and our data isn’t secure.”We need to see privacy by design: you can’t bolt on privacy at the end of big government IT projects, we need privacy safeguards built into systems right at the start.”‘

It is good to see this debate taking place.  Britain has more digital surveillance than anywhere else in the world, and this provides the context for very real ethical questions.  There are those who say that states are too inefficient to be able to manage this wealth of data effectively – and there is some evidence to support this.  However, even if this is true at a practical level, it does not negate the importance of the ethical questions.  ICTs are enabling fundamental changes to take place in the relationship between states/governments and societies, and we need to ask whether these are ‘right’.  Just because it is possible to use these new technologies for surveillance purposes,  does not mean that it is right to do so

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