Busybodies in the UK

Today’s Guardian had an interview with a senior police officer who was predicting a summer of rage. This seems a little like a step in a “police bargaining with the government for more resources” strategy, rather than a realistic prediction. (In any case, surely there must be few powers left that the government haven’t already given them.) But, following a link on the page, I found an old story that seems worth a full-blown rant despite it being a year old

A man was arrested by armed police for being armed with an i-pod.

Armed police arrested a man listening to his MP3 player and took a sample of his DNA after a fellow commuter mistook the music player for a gun. (from the Guardian)

His big mistakes were to have a black mp3 player and to get it out of his pocket at a bus stop. Obviously he also stuck the headphones in his ears and listened to it. That bit must have somehow passed right by the eagle-eyed paranoid person who called the police to say that he’d pointed and aimed a gun.

I’ve only ever seen a pistol in movies and on TV but I am still pretty confident that I could distinguish one from an mp3 player.

But, then, I’ve had a good few mp3 players and that might count as specialist knowledge that was denied to the person who phoned this incident in. So maybe it’s an easy mistake to make.

This morning there was a neutron bomb at my bus stop, but, luckily, someone threw an empty packet into it and I realised that it was just a rubbish bin before I’d called in a surgical strike.

This man (fortunately for him, not apparently Brazilian-looking, I assume) was soon surrounded by police, aiming weapons (real ones, not portable dvd players). He was held in a cell and had photographs, fingerprints and – you’ve already guessed it – DNA taken. (It’s probably still there, unless our government plans to follow the European court’s ruling.)

He now has a record on the police national database that says he was arrested on suspicion of carrying an illegal gun. Try and get a job that needs Criminal Records Bureau clearance (i.e. almost any job nowadays) with that on your informal record. (“No smoke without fire”…)

The DNA etc aspects of this case are just par for the course, by our increasingly authoritarian standards, and you can’t blame the police for taking seriously a report that a man was wielding a gun on a bus.

The most distressing thing about the incident was the way that some members of have public have taken the idea of the state-compliant-sneak-on-every-street-corner from the Big Book of How to Live Under Totalitarianism and have run with it. For instance, you might remember the steel band members who had to leave their flight and spend the night in a bus shelter, because of a false report from a fellow passenger.

These eagerly-reporting fellow passengers seem like ballistic weapons themselves – primed by having their heads filled with such constant fear that their perceptions get distorted to fit.

If I’m ever on a public transport service vehicle and someone pulls a gun, I hope that somebody has the presence of mind to act. But, I also really hope that – when I’m carrying a rucksack and listening to my mp3 player – that no paranoid lunatics get me taken awy at the point of an assault rifle.

The UK is turning into a “nation of narks and bullies”, as Marina Hyde said in the Guardian, a couple of months ago, discussing the XFactor-style plans for rating doctors:

…. we become a vast, swarming tribe of people constantly judging one another – a nation of narks too stupid to realise that we are being usefully distracted; a baying, bullying society of people laughing at the incompetent, sneaking on our neighbours, and undermining anyone with the temerity to work themselves into a position of expertise with a press of our red buttons.

UK Liberty coalition – not before time

The forthcoming Convention on Modern Liberty gathering on 28 February will be a …. call to arms, to all parties, to resist the government’s attack on our liberties, rights and privacy. “(from Henry Porter in the Guardian)

Supported by the Guardian, Rowntree Trust,Liberty and Open democracy, a host of people, including well-known lawyers, writers and MPs from all parties, will discuss the way that

the patterns we see in the Coroners and Justice Bill, ID card laws and the Communications Data Bill (which will allow the government to seize and store every text message, email, phone call and internet connection) tell us that our democracy is under serious threat.

Woohoo. At last. Almost brings a tear to my eye to see a disparate range of people coming together to challenge the encroaching authoritarianism of our country.

There are events throughout the UK. Details on modernlibertynet It isn’t cheap to attend these but you can access news on a blog, facebook, twitter, and so on.

Councils not authoritarian enough for Interception Kommisar

The print version of the the Metro, the free bus paper, headlined a story that “Interception of Communications Commissioner” Sir Paul Kennedy believes that UK councils haven’t yet been making the full use of terrorist powers to investigate people. And he’s disappointed.

“Terror laws should be used even more to snoop on the public, councils have been urged” (Quotes painstakingly copied out by me from the print Metro, 12/08/08)

Apparently, last year, there were a mere 500,000 “spying requests from councils, police and other officials” to phone and internet companies. Half a million. What a pathetic waste of the Stasi powers, hey? There are over 60 million of us, ffs. Must try harder. In fact, local councils only checked the comms of 3,000 people.

So, whom does the unusually honestly-job-titled Commissioner say that councils should be spying on?

criminals who “persistently rip off consumers, cheat the taxpayer, deal in counterfeit goods and prey on the elderly and vulnerable”

See what he did there? Threw in preying on “the elderly and vulnerable”, in case the listener dared to imagine that dealing in counterfeit goods and ripping off consumers wasn’t quite a serious enough crime to warrant the use of anti-terrorist laws. Oh, those poor vulnerable people…. Apparently the police can’t protect them so plucky local councils have to spring to their defence.

It is very very hard to see what even the shadiest blag goods market stall has to do with terrorism. In fact, dare I say it, but it’s even hard to see what robbing the vulnerable has to do with terrorism. Or councils. Either crimes are police issues or they aren’t. If they are, then what use will a council’s intercepting comms do, ffs? Are council investigators so superior to the police that they can get all manner of information about scams straight from lists of phone calls? Maybe I just lack the breadth of vision of the town hall experts but it smells of bullshit.

The online Metro apparently doesn’t think this news item, which fills the print edition’s front page, is lively enough for the morons who they must think read the news on tinterweb. The online version leads with some content-free Sienna Miller story. It doesn’t bother with text on the dull old freedoms issue, but it it has tried to give it a nuMedia buzz by mentioning the topic in a sentence and having a “poll”. For what it’s worth, 81% of respondents to the question Should councils be allowed to use terror laws to spy on members of the public? think that it’s well out of order.

This is exactly the point that Jenni Russell made in the Guardian last week. Acknowledging that there are still plenty of us who would rather gnaw off their own arms at the elbow than welcome a Conservative government, let alone vote for the buggers, she pointed out that the nuLabour government has come to be overwhelmingly identified with totally illiberal policies.

The new dividing line between Labour and the Tories is less about a left-right split than about an authoritarian approach on one side and a more liberal one on the other. And Labour are on the wrong side of it. Many of their social and economic policies may have failed, but where they have succeeded is in developing a targeting, controlling, distrustful state. From the micromanagement of civil servants, teachers, doctors and the police, to ID cards, super databases and the growth of surveillance.

More database state stupidity

This is becoming a bit too much of theme. So, with apologies for the nagging, a brief rant on yet another BBC article about the database state:

Plans for a super-database containing the details of all phone calls and e-mails sent in the UK have been heavily criticised by experts.

Well, duh. I’m no “expert”. So I’m not going to criticise this for its inherent insecurity. Or the enormous cost of feeding and maintaining such a database.

I’m not even going to criticise this plan for its blatant attack on civil liberties. That should be screamingly clear to anyone with more than a dozen working brain cells.

Instead, I’m going to take the anti-terrorist claim at face value and assume, for the sake of argument, that this is not a cynical manipulation of public fear to gain draconian powers. So, I’m sticking with the sheer stupidity.

I’m going to assume that the expensively-educated people in the upper reaches of government have somehow failed to grasp some basic things about the plotting process. Maybe they should watch more TV and movies and read some detective or spy fiction.

Do terrorists really send emails to each other’s home email addresses, saying “Bring the semtex to 23 Green Street on Thursday at 3:00 o’clock?” I’m not saying it’s impossible that this happens. I just think it would be in the low single figures on a probability scale of 1 to 100.

Even without going into the far reaches of steganography and secure encryption and the dozens of effective technological ways to obscure information, the simplest of agreed code words can convey any amount of meaning. “Happy birthday!” could easily mean “Bring the …. etc”

Phone calls? Do terrorists have to call each other’s home phones? There are still a few call-boxes, for a start. Anyone can get hold of a used mobile and then use it to call another used mobile. Phone theft is hardly unheard of. Your stolen mobile phone can have arranged a dozen dastardly plots before you’ve even noticed that your bag’s been dipped. Blimey, people could even break into your house and use the phone.

Plus language. Anyone with any facility in an obscure language could openly discuss their plots on an open and attributable phone connection for 6 months before the government’s listeners get round to finding a security-cleared speaker of idiomatic Finnish to translate.

The embarrassing dictionaries of youth slang that appear occasionally in the media are testament to the fact that even speakers of a common language may have no idea what a subcultural group are saying. If you are anything like me, your conversations with close friends and family will be basically impenetrable to anyone else, with obscure catchphrases and references to long-ago lame jokes that don’t need spelling out for the recipient but would be (suspiciously) meaningless to a listener.

In any case, a serious terrorist or master-criminal would surely choose to pass messages face-to-face to their co-conspirators, in the face of electronic surveillance.

So these measures are so dumb as to be completely pointless, in terms of their supposed objective. A suspicious person might think that this suggests there is another agenda.

But, let us be charitable and assume that the WAT is being conducted by morons. In that case, may I politely suggest the “talk and resolve the issues” route….. Yet again………

My own blacklist

It’s going beyond boring to keep plugging this “1984 in the 21st century” stuff, so I’ve been willfully blanking lots of it, but this story is too chilling to ignore.

Just think of every shitty boss you’ve ever worked for. Every dishonest co-worker. Every work dispute you’ve ever had. Every manager who’s made you take the rap for their own corruption or stupidity.

Now, just imagine that the aforementioned shitty bosses could get a lifelong revenge on you at no inconvenience or risk to themselves.

The BBC story says:

Workers accused of theft or damage could soon find themselves blacklisted on a register to be shared among employers. It will be good for profits but campaigners say innocent people could find it impossible to get another job.To critics it sounds like a scenario from some Orwellian nightmare.
An online database of workers accused of theft and dishonesty, regardless of whether they have been convicted of any crime, which bosses can access when vetting potential employees.
But this is no dystopian fantasy. Later this month, the National Staff Dismissal Register (NSDR) is expected to go live.

Note that you don’t get on this database by being convicted of a crime. That would see you on the Criminal Records Bureau computer, which – for all its shortcomings – requires there to have been a prosecution before you find yourself unable to work ever again.

You can get on this database just because someone suspects you of doing something untoward in their employment. Or, obviously, just hates you for any number of reasons.

The Trades Union Congress spokesperson said:

Individuals would be treated as criminals, even though the police have never been contacted

Precisely, thus overturning centuries of law based on the “innocent till proven guilty” premise.

For once, the comments on this story on the BBC website aren’t dominated by the “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” battalion. Most commenters were understandably horrified and made some cogent arguments against it.

I’m still going to hammer a few of the arguments home.

  • A dispute with an employer can now permanently ruin your entire working life, even if you are completely in the right.
  • In many industries – bar and shop work – unjustified accusations of theft are pretty commonplace. Things get stolen or takings are down and a paranoid boss tends to blame anyone handy.
  • People who are stealing at work can be very good at casting the burden of doubt on other workers, especially if they are new or temporary. (A fortnight’s temporary work as a naive student could leave you so unemployable that you might as well not finish that course.)
  • If you are guilty, you might as well not bother going straight in future jobs because you won’t get any.
  • The private information to be held on these databases must contravene the Data UnProtection Act as it’s obviously not being used for the purposes it is collected for. (For instance, your NI number is supposed to exist to allow your contributions to be credited to you. )
  • The BBC article refers to some remedies under the law. They are too feeble to even merit a mention. And in case, they are purely personal. You yourself have to find out if you’re on the database. You have to ask for your record. You then have to require that errors of fact be corrected.
  • If you have anything against you – legitimate or not – as a UK citizen, you are at a big disadvantage in working in the UK, compared to other EC nationals. You need checkable references, legitimate qualifications and, increasingly, CRB checks. I suggest that you move to another EC country forthwith, so you can make up a few past jobs and some impressive trade qualifications, which no one will be able to question. Imagine you are a builder who has got caught taking home some bathroom fittings (pretty much seen as one of the perks of the job until recently.) That’s it. You’re sacked. You’re also finished up as a worker in the UK. Your job will go to someone with a completely spotless UK record – which probably means someone fresh from Eastern Europe. I can’t believe that free movement of labour in the EU was meant to allow countries – like the present-day UK – to willfully marginalise their own populations.

On a social – but also very selfish level – who wants to live in a world where one mistake – or one falsely attributed mistake – dooms people to a life in which legitimate earnings are just a pipe-dream? That is the way to turn the country into a crime-ridden wasteland. As the UK goes under ever more extreme lock down, life gets ever more desperate for the people outside of Daily-Mail world.

Boycotts are generally feeble tools for achieving anything. All the same, as far as I can see, the only possible recourse against this sort of thing – in the absence of any organised public concern – is to just refuse to buy any goods or services from the offending companies.

So I’m starting my own blacklist.

The BBC mentions Harrods, Selfridges and Reed Managed Services. They’ll do for a start, although that’s too easy. Never having used the services of any of these companies, it won’t make much of a dint in their balance sheets if I decide to boycott them. All the same great oaks, small acorns etc.

When I find out the names of more participants, I’ll post them here.

Make the trains run on time?

It was a scenario that would have seemed like overkill in an Eastern European border post at the height of the Cold War. At least a dozen uniformed British Transport Police with dogs and backup vehicles in the average-sized mainline trainstation of an insignificant UK provincial city, at tea-time on a Sunday evening.

Doing stop and searches, apparently based on the hunches of the afore-mentioned sniffer dogs. Which apparently were experts in the fine old canine arts of sniffing out “drugs” or people who “look a bit Brazilian Muslim.”

I listened to one father challenging a Transport policewoman about the fact that his teenage son’s details – name, address, date of birth, etc – had been collected to go in a database. …. Despite a search of all the lad’s pockets, socks and so on, not having turned up an aspirin, a knife, a gun or a handy pocket-sized stick of semtex.

The father pointed out that any other time the lad is stopped, the information that pops up will record him as the subject of a drugs/weapons/terror search. Thus setting him off on a path that leads to an identification as somehow having warranted this suspicion.

The policewoman said words to the effect that it was just tough. That’s just the way things are. And no, there was nothing he could do about it. The database entry stands. All the details collected from such stops go into the database of information on – well – close to everybody that they can get information from .

Blimey, I didn’t even realise that British Transport Police had rights of random stop and search. Let alone rights to gather information on people’s names addresses and travel plans. Oh, yes, RIPA. D’oh. It’s probably only an oversight that they didn’t demand DNA.

I am so innocent. Who would have thought that a teenager buying a train ticket, with his parents, could probably be an international drug dealer or a suicide bomber? Well, better to be safe than sorry. Silly me.

A huge policeman came to physically back up the policewoman, in case the father might actually raise his voice, cuss or commit some other subversive act.

At this point, I could see a potential for nothing good to come of it for anyone who wasn’t in uniform, so I sidled off in a cowardly manner…….

Bees buzz off

(Yes, OK, that headline was just too bad a pun, even for this blog.) Bees are getting wiped out, in America and Europe. British bee-keepers lobbied Parliament on Wednesday. Beekeepers have asked for £8 million 5 year research programme. This is a pretty modest sum by government spending standards but the Environment Department (DEFRA) says it couldn’t possibly afford it.

American bees are apparently dropping like flies….. This is blamed on Colony Collapse Disorder, which is basically another way of saying that a whole colony dies and no one knows why. It has also happened in the European mainland, but not yet in the UK, according to DEFRA, although some British beekeepers think that they are experiencing it.

In case bees seem like an irrelevant luxury, especially if you don’t eat honey, the Independent pointed out that:

Without the presence of bees, much of agriculture would be impossible, and this is a sobering thought right now, as feeding the world is suddenly becoming more difficult because of rising demand and the transfer of much crop production into biofuels, especially in the US.

DEFRA’s response is to devise a strategy which involves setting up some sort of “Dad’s Army” for Bees – volunteers looking out for diseases- and – you may have guessed it, on current government form – setting up a database. (Is there a database administrator anywhere who could volunteer to explain to the UK government exactly what databases can and cannot do? )

It looks as if no one knows why bees are dying off, There are any number of possible explanations, some of which – blaming the use of mobile phones – strike me as ludicrous. (Although I have to admit that banning mobiles to save world food production would have two upsides.)

Finding out would seem to be a matter of some urgency, you would think. But apparently not worth £8 million, in contrast to the sums spent on other government projects, for instance:

…. the Identity and Passport Service has carried out nearly 90,000 interviews with first-time adult applicants at its new, multi-million pound network of centres.
The centres cost £50m to set up and £30m a year to run. (from the BBC)

So far 90,000 people have been interviewed and none have been knocked back. That’s £80 million spent on illiberal stupidity that has actually done nothing except make last year’s passport provision incredibly more costly. (Oh, and set up even more “joined-up government” databases, of course. )

Why is it always so easy to find government money for vanity projects or extending the apparatus of repression, but seemingly impossible to find any money to protect the environment?