Privatising the database state – who will profit from our loss of liberty?

Another costly IT project that the private sector fails to deliver on time? Could cost more than money, our civil liberties are at stake, reports The Guardian:

The private sector will be asked to manage and run a communications database that will keep track of everyone’s calls, emails, texts and internet use under a key option contained in a consultation paper to be published next month by Jacqui Smith, the home secretary.

A cabinet decision to put the management of the multibillion pound database of all UK communications traffic into private hands would be accompanied by tougher legal safeguards to guarantee against leaks and accidental data losses.

But in his strongest criticism yet of the superdatabase, Sir Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, who has firsthand experience of working with intelligence and law enforcement agencies, told the Guardian such assurances would prove worthless in the long run and warned it would prove a “hellhouse” of personal private information.

“Authorisations for access might be written into statute. The most senior ministers and officials might be designated as scrutineers. But none of this means anything,” said Macdonald. “All history tells us that reassurances like these are worthless in the long run. In the first security crisis the locks would loosen.”

The home secretary postponed the introduction of legislation to set up the superdatabase in October and instead said she would publish a consultation paper in the new year setting out the proposal and the safeguards needed to protect civil liberties. She has emphasised that communications data, which gives the police the identity and location of the caller, texter or web surfer but not the content, has been used as important evidence in 95% of serious crime cases and almost all security service operations since 2004 including the Soham and 21/7 bombing cases.

Until now most communications traffic data has been held by phone companies and internet service providers for billing purposes but the growth of broadband phone services, chatrooms and anonymous online identities mean that is no longer the case.

The Home Office’s interception modernisation programme, which is working on the superdatabase proposal, argues that it is no longer good enough for communications companies to be left to retrieve such data when requested by the police and intelligence services. A Home Office spokeswoman said last night the changes were needed so law enforcement agencies could maintain their ability to tackle serious crime and terrorism.

Senior Whitehall officials responsible for planning for a new database say there is a significant difference between having access to “communications data” – names and addresses of emails or telephone numbers, for example – and the actual contents of the communications. “We have been very clear that there are no plans for a database containing any content of emails, texts or conversations,” the spokeswoman said.

External estimates of the cost of the superdatabase have been put as high as £12bn, twice the cost of the ID cards scheme, and the consultation paper, to be published towards the end of next month, will include an option of putting it into the hands of the private sector in an effort to cut costs. But such a decision is likely to fuel civil liberties concerns over data losses and leaks. Macdonald, who left his post as DPP in October, told the Guardian: “The tendency of the state to seek ever more powers of surveillance over its citizens may be driven by protective zeal. But the notion of total security is a paranoid fantasy which would destroy everything that makes living worthwhile. We must avoid surrendering our freedom as autonomous human beings to such an ugly future. We should make judgments that are compatible with our status as free people.”

Maintaining the capacity to intercept suspicious communications was critical in an increasingly complex world, he said. “It is a process which can save lives and bring criminals to justice. But no other country is considering such a drastic step. This database would be an unimaginable hell-house of personal private information,” he said. “It would be a complete readout of every citizen’s life in the most intimate and demeaning detail. No government of any colour is to be trusted with such a roadmap to our souls.”

The moment there was a security crisis the temptation for more commonplace access would be irresistible, he said.

Other critics of the plan point to the problems of keeping the database secure, both from the point of view of the technology and of deliberate leaks. The problem would be compounded if private companies manage the system. “If there is a breach of security in that database it would be utterly devastating,” one said.

What have the Palestinians got to complain about?

In contrast to Israel’s 2006 aggression against Lebanon, the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary are competing to see who can most stridently condemn the Gaza attacks.

Calling for a ceasefire is no problem this time round. After all, Brown used the conflict in Lebanon as a way of ousting Blair.

Now David MiniBliar is trying the same trick. He’s even talking about that article he published. You know, the one that talked about Labour’s woes without mentioning Brown? Not that wee David would have linked the two, of course…

Now, it’s rare that comedy is linked with the plight of the Palestinians, both in beseiged Gaza and the occupied West Bank, but Mark Steel manages to get a few laughs out of the hypocrisy surrounding the insistance upon moral equivalence between the mass produced WMDs of the IDF and the home-made rockets of Hamas.

Mark Steel: So what have the Palestinians got to complain about?

To portray this as a conflict between equals requires some imagination

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

When you read the statements from Israeli and US politicians, and try to match them with the pictures of devastation, there seems to be only one explanation. They must have one of those conditions, called something like “Visual-Carnage-Responsibility-Back-To-Front-Upside-Down-Massacre-Disorder”.

For example, Condoleezza Rice, having observed that more than 300 Gazans were dead, said: “We are deeply concerned about the escalating violence. We strongly condemn the attacks on Israel and hold Hamas responsible.”

Someone should ask her to comment on teenage knife-crime, to see if she’d say: “I strongly condemn the people who’ve been stabbed, and until they abandon their practice of wandering around clutching their sides and bleeding, there is no hope for peace.”

The Israeli government suffers terribly from this confusion. They probably have adverts on Israeli television in which a man falls off a ladder and screams, “Eeeeugh”, then a voice says, “Have you caused an accident at work in the last 12 months?” and the bloke who pushed him gets £3,000.

The gap between the might of Israel’s F-16 bombers and Apache helicopters, and the Palestinians’ catapulty thing is so ridiculous that to try and portray the situation as between two equal sides requires the imagination of a children’s story writer.

The reporter on News at Ten said the rockets “may be ineffective, but they ARE symbolic.” So they might not have weapons but they have got symbolism, the canny brutes.

It’s no wonder the Israeli Air Force had to demolish a few housing estates, otherwise Hamas might have tried to mock Israel through a performance of expressive dance.

The rockets may be unable to to kill on the scale of the Israeli Air Force, said one spokesman, but they are “intended to kill”.

Maybe he went on: “And we have evidence that Hamas supporters have dreams, and that in these dreams bad things happen to Israeli citizens, they burst, or turn into cactus, or run through Woolworths naked, so it’s not important whether it can happen, what matters is that they WANT it to happen, so we blew up their university.”

Or there’s the outrage that Hamas has been supported by Iran. Well that’s just breaking the rules. Because say what you will about the Israelis, they get no arms supplies or funding or political support from a country that’s more powerful than them, they just go their own way and make all their weapons in an arts and crafts workshop in Jerusalem.

But mostly the Israelis justify themselves with a disappointing lack of imagination, such as the line that they had to destroy an ambulance because Hamas cynically put their weapons inside ambulances.

They should be more creative, and say Hamas were planning to aim the flashing blue light at Israeli epileptics in an attempt to make them go into a fit, get dizzy and wander off into Syria where they would be captured.

But they prefer a direct approach, such as the statement from Ofer Schmerling, an Israeli Civil Defence official who said on al-Jazeera, “I shall play music and celebrate what the Israeli Air Force is doing.”

Maybe they could turn it into a huge nationalfestival, with decorations and mince pies and shops playing “I Wish We Could Bomb Gaza Every Day”.

In a similar tone Dov Weisglas, Ariel Sharon’s chief of staff, referred to the siege of Gaza that preceded this bombing, a siege in which the Israelis prevented the population from receiving essential supplies of food, medicine, electricity and water, by saying, “We put them on a diet.”

It’s the arrogance of the East End gangster, so it wouldn’t be out of character if the Israeli Prime Minister’s press conference began: “Oh dear or dear. It looks like those Palestinians have had a little, er, accident. All their buildings have been knocked down – they want to be more careful, hee hee.”

And almost certainly one of the reasons this is happening now is because the government wants to appear hard as it wants to win an election. Maybe with typical Israeli frankness they’ll show a party political broadcast in which Ehud Olmert says, “This is why I think you should vote for me”, then shows film of Gaza and yells: “Wa-hey, that bloke in the corner is on FIRE.”

And Condoleezza Rice and her colleagues, and the specially appointed Middle East Peace Envoy, could then all shake their heads and say: “Disgraceful. The way he’s flapping around like that could cause someone to have a nasty accident.”

TUC calls for a worker-friendly new year

TUC new year message

In his new year message to trade union members published today (Tuesday), TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said:

’2009 has to mark a decisive turning point, away from the neo-liberal market-always-knows-best conventional wisdom that brought our economy to the brink of a catastrophic collapse, towards a fairer, more balanced economy delivering sustainable prosperity.

‘This is going to be a grim year. Unemployment will increase every month. Some predict it will hit three million, but in truth no-one knows.

‘First because we have little experience of a recession driven by a financial collapse, and secondly because we do not know how bold our Government – and as importantly, other governments meeting together as the G20 in April in London – will be.

‘Government therefore has three priorities in the year ahead:

* it must take every action necessary to make the recession as short and as shallow as possible;
* it must develop the proper policy response to mass unemployment;
* it must use these and other policies not just to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes that led to the financial collapse, but also to ensure that we emerge from recession as a fairer, greener and more sustainable economy.

Action to tackle the recession

‘The Government must be prepared to take further bold action to counter the recession and to save jobs.

‘The roots of this recession lie in the failure of the finance and banking sectors, and while the Government deserves praise for setting the international pace on the bail-out of banks, we do not yet have a banking system that is truly serving the interests of business or household borrowers. Banks are putting building up their own balance sheets and paying back government loans as their top priorities. But they also still hold high levels of ‘toxic’ debts which prevent them from dealing with other banks in a normal way. The Government and the Bank of England must therefore consider injecting even more support into the financial system to get credit flowing again.

‘The Government cannot be expected to come to the aid of every company that faces difficulties but it must be prepared to look at providing short term assistance to strategic companies in sectors vital to the future of Britain.

‘The Government should consider a further stimulus package in the Budget. Barack Obama’s team are already talking of a big package to boost the US economy. The UK should follow suit – and also use the April G20 summit in London to create a coalition of the willing to wage war on unemployment, poverty and recession.

‘As well as bringing forward planned infrastructure projects, ministers should be fast tracking new projects to ensure that further work can start when these finish. The UK is still suffering from a lack of investment in the key infrastructure a modern low-carbon economy requires.

Action to help the unemployed

‘Too much government policy towards the unemployed still tends to be trapped in the idea that there are enough jobs to go round, and that the unemployed either lack the skills or the motivation to get work. While of course with rights come responsibilities, the thousands of people losing their jobs every week throughout 2009 should not be treated as potential scroungers but victims of economic forces well beyond their control. They will need help through benefits and support through training and job search.

‘Despite its tough presentation and some objectionable policies such as workfare, there were some good proposals in the welfare reform Green Paper to make Job Centre Plus services better tailored to individual needs. Mass unemployment will make it even harder for those who normally find it more difficult to get work such as disabled people and those juggling child care and work. There needs to be specific help for such groups – such as an increase in child care, which in turn creates jobs.

‘The TUC has already called for better benefits, higher statutory redundancy pay and a bigger tax allowance for redundancy pay to provide more help for the newly unemployed. We now look for action in the Budget on these issues.

Action to create a fairer, greener and more sustainable economy

’2009 is going to be tough, but it can still be made positive if it becomes a turning point – the year in which we set out to build a deliberately different kind of economy.

‘That first means recognising the mistakes of the past – made not just by this Government, but by governments and the economic and political establishment almost everywhere.

‘We have given far too much weight to the interests of the finance sector, and began to believe it could create wealth simply by moving it around, rather than through long-term investment in the goods and services that people want and need.

‘The challenges we face are clear. Even before the recession we were scarred by poverty, particularly child poverty. Our society was coming under increasing strain from growing inequality as a new class of the super-rich escaped their responsibilities to pay a fair share of tax. We had neglected important sectors of the economy as we gave preference to financial services. We have failed to do enough to meet the environmental imperative.

‘This challenges us all to put the measures we will need to beat the recession to a longer term purpose of building a better greener and fairer economy that can emerge the other side of the downturn.

‘This will require:

* a new kind of industrial strategy – not a return to picking winners and easy hand-outs, but strategic support to the sectors where we are already strong but could do better. Some will be in manufacturing, but others will be in services and parts of the economy often neglected in such discussions such as the creative sectors.
* A green industrial revolution that recognises that many industries will have to adapt to survive, but that also that the environmental challenge can generate thousands of productive worthwhile jobs, and build on the strength of our science base.
* An intensification of efforts to make society fairer – the recession should encourage the government to speed up efforts to eliminate child poverty.
* A fairer tax system. The government is right to increase borrowing to maintain the strength of the economy. But this borrowing and decent public services will have to be paid for, and 2009 must see a real debate on how to make the tax system fairer. There is a real demand for the super-rich to pay a fairer share. President Elect Obama has been a long-time supporter of a crack down on the tax havens used by multi-nationals and the mobile super-rich to avoid tax.
* A new kind of banking system that no longer threatens international economic stability and instead serves the rest of the economy and society. Britain’s banks already look very different. Some are now state-owned, some have large public stakes and all have received substantial help from the Bank of England and the taxpayer. At the very least we will need new regulatory structures to enforce stability but also to protect the consumer in a sector with less competition.

’2009 will not be easy year, but it could be the turning point that will make 2010 not just the start of recovery, but the first steps in building a new economy.’

Too little, too late: demutualisation a mistake, admits Tory spokesman

Whatever next? They’ll admit privatisation of the utilities has landed us with multinationals holding us to ransome?

Interesting comments from New Labour minister Hazel Blears, too:

Demutualisation was a mistake, says shadow Treasury minister
December 29 2008

Building society demutualisations had been wrong, a Conservative Treasury spokesman admitted at the first ever Mutuals Forum.

“We can see with hindsight what a mistake they were,” said Mark Hoban, the shadow Treasury minister. “Those institutions were too small as listed entities to survive.” However, Hoban resisted a suggestion from conference delegate Vivian Woodell — Chief Executive of the Phone Co-op and representing Midcounties Co-op at the London event — that the Government should now ‘re-mutualise’ Northern Rock. “I can see the attraction of it,” responded Hoban, “but I am not sure that you can do that now.”

Adrian Bailey, a Labour/Co-op MP speaking alongside Hoban at the conference plenary, reported that he and other MPs had unsuccessfully tabled an amendment to the Banking Bill currently going through Parliament that would enable Northern Rock to be remutualised. “There has to be a balance between the [Government’s] responsibility to taxpayers and the benefits of mutuality,” said Bailey.

The Forum’s keynote speaker was communities secretary Hazel Blears, who told delegates she was a long-time and committed supporter of co-operatives, other mutuals and community organisations.

“I think we need to do more [as a government] than just have a level playing field [between mutuals and PLCs] and see where mutuals can offer us an opportunity to do things,” Ms Blears said.

She added that mutual organisations were already doing the kinds of things “we are trying to do in communities across the country”. Blears explained that she believes that mutuals “are better placed” to weather the recession than are PLCs. “There is a new hankering for solidarity and a new interest in people taking control of their own affairs,” she suggested.

Ms Blears made a promise to delegates on behalf of the Government that further legal reforms would be introduced to enable co-operatives and other mutuals to run their businesses more effectively, including reforms of the need for paper-based communication.

New legislation will be proposed to allow mutuals to make greater use of electronic communication. Other intended measures include helping mutuals to bid to act as agents for the Government in its welfare reform and other programmes. Ms Blears said there was more of a mood to support co-ops and mutuals following the collapse of the banking system.

In return, Ms Blears said, the mutual and co-operative movement should do more to explain to the public how big, how important and how useful the sector is. Ms Blears added that the first ever Mutuals Yearbook was an important step forward in achieving this. The Yearbook — which was launched at the Forum — contains statistical information and key facts about the largest parts of the mutual movement.

The Forum heard from executives of the Building Societies Association, the Association of Mutual Insurers, the Association of Friendly Societies and the Employee Ownership Association, who each explained how large their sectors were.

The 58 remaining building societies have nearly 52,000 staff, 23 million members and £380bn in assets. Mutual insurers in the UK control £83bn in assets and have 15 million policyholders. And employee-co-owned businesses — not including workers’ co-operatives — have an annual turnover of £25bn.

Closing the Forum, David Anderson, Chief Executive of Co-operative Financial Services and Chair of the Mutuo think-tank, which organised the event, told delegates that they should expand the size of the sector by increasing inter-trade at the expense of existing contracts with PLCs. “Let’s get out of our silos and start doing business with each other,” he urged, to enthusiastic support from delegates.

The event attracted 200 delegates from the co-operative, building society, mutual insurance, co-operative trust schools and foundation trust sectors.

More religious leaders attack New Labour’s worship of the super-rich

Strong words from Church of England bishops on New Labour’s devotion to the neoliberal agenda pioneered by the Tories under Thatcher and Major.

Clearly, many people expected Brown to be more moderate than Blair with regards to serving the oligarchy.

Blair was more vocally religious – in reality neither part of “Christian socialist” could be truthfully applied to him.

Brown however has a religious background so it’s no wonder that a great many people of faith expected him to practice self-criticism rather than defend the legacy of Thatcher, Major, and Blair.

From The Morning Star:

Bishops: New Labour is morally corrupt
(Sunday 28 December 2008)
by ADRIAN ROBERTS

FURIOUS bishops delivered a damning assessment of new Labour’s record in power on Sunday, branding the government “morally corrupt.”

Five senior figures from the Church of England warned that Britain was suffering from family breakdown, an addiction to debt and a growing gap between rich and poor.

The bishops of Durham, Winchester, Manchester, Carlisle and Hulme accused ministers of squandering their opportunity to transform society and pursuing “scandalous” policies.

The interventions, in separate interviews, followed the Archbishop of Canterbury’s extraordinary public attack on new Labour last week.

Rowan Williams said that Gordon Brown’s plans to spend more in order to tackle the recession were like an “addict returning to the drug” and suggested that the economy had been going in the wrong direction for decades.

Bishop of Durham Tom Wright berated ministers for not doing enough to help the poor since 1997.

“Labour made a lot of promises, but a lot of them have vanished into thin air,” he said.

“We have not seen a raising of aspirations in the last 13 years, but, instead, there is a sense of hopelessness.

“While the rich have got richer, the poor have got poorer. When a big bank or car company goes bankrupt, it gets bailed out, but no-one seems to be bailing out the ordinary people who are losing their jobs and seeing their savings diminished.”

Bishop of Manchester Nigel McCulloch bashed new Labour for encouraging people to get further into debt.

“The government has acted scandalously. This is not just an economic issue but a moral one. It’s about what we value,” he said.

“The government believes that money can answer all of the problems and has encouraged greed and a love of money that the Bible says is the root of all evil.

“It’s morally corrupt because it encourages people to get into a lifestyle of believing they can always get what they want.”

Bishop McCulloch said that the government was guilty of pursuing the same policies championed by Margaret Thatcher.

“Both administrations have been beguiled by money. It’s ironic that, under a Labour government, we have the poor feeling they have been betrayed and the gap is getting ever greater.

“Any government of integrity would have exercised restraint, but this has been sadly lacking.”

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