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.

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America’s war in Pakistan threatens our security

UK PM Gordon Brown has said he is “permanently on guard” against the threat of terrorism. (If only the security services had been in 2005 when Saudi intelligence warned of a terrorist attack which killed 52 people.)

Today’s Guardian reveals that Bush is planning a war in Pakistan, something which is sure to increase the chances of another 7/7 occurring here. Secret orders have been signed by the president allowing special forces to operate within Pakistan – even though they do not have permission from Pakistan’s government.

Brown will be compounding the terror threat, which is to a large extent caused by the UK’s involvement in occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, by backing this terror campaign in Pakistan and perhaps sending UK forces across the border from Afghanistan to assist. UK forces in Afghanistan are likely to come under increase attacks as the conflict esculates – leading to more fatalities and injuries amongst service personnel and Afghan civilians.

On Tuesday a US drone killed 23 people in North Waziristan and injured 20 others. Ironically, this was an attack on a school set up by Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of the mujahideen fighters the US backed in the 80s – you know, the foreign fighters who used the porous border to enter Afghanistan…

Pakistan’s armed forces aren’t pleased about US plans to enter the country and wage war on the population – already attacks carried out by drones have prompted the army to cut off Nato supplies. And it is unlikely that Nato forces will be used in these operations – something which is sure to increase the tensions between Nato member states.

What next – internment for truants?

As the Home Secretary tries to scare us all into accepting the government’s unpopular new anti-terror laws – which would allow police to detain those suspected of terrorism related offences for 42 days – let us remind ourselves what these laws are being used for:

A family who were wrongly suspected of lying on a school application form have discovered that their local council used anti-terrorism surveillance powers to spy on them.

The family, from Poole in Dorset, said they had been tailed for three weeks by council officials trying to establish whether they had given a false address in an attempt to get their three-year-old daughter a place at a heavily oversubscribed local nursery school, which their two older children had attended. The family had in fact done nothing wrong, and the investigation was eventually aborted.

Yesterday it emerged that Poole borough council had legitimately used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to monitor the family. This involved keeping a detailed log of their movements for two weeks, following the mother’s car as she took her three children to school each day and even watching the family home to ascertain their sleeping habits.

The Act, passed in 2000, was supposed to allow security agencies to combat terrorism.

The 39-year-old mother, a businesswoman who wished to remain anonymous, said: “I can’t imagine a greater invasion of our privacy. I’m incensed that legislation designed to combat terrorism can be turned on a three-year-old. It was very creepy when we found out that people had been watching us and making notes. Councils should be protecting children, not spying on them.”

The council defended its right to investigate families in a covert manner, saying it had used the law twice in the past year to successfully prove parents were lying about where they lived.

Erm, right. But isn’t the law being used for something other than its purpose? Isn’t lying about where you live to get your kids into a school a little less serious than terrorism?

On those claims by Smith, do you suppose it is a coincidence that a series of high-profile terrorism cases are taking place at this time? I do wonder:

In the News of the World interview, Ms Smith said security services were investigating up to 30 terror plots.

She said: “We now face a threat level that is severe. It’s not getting any less, it’s actually growing.

“There are 2,000 individuals they are monitoring. There are 200 networks. There are 30 active plots.

“That has increased over the past two years. Since the beginning of 2007, 57 people have been convicted on terrorist plots.

“Nearly half of those pleaded guilty so this is not some figment of the imagination. It is a real risk and a real issue we need to respond to.

“We can’t wait for an attack to succeed and then rush in new powers. We’ve got to stay ahead.”

Under the proposals the home secretary would be able to immediately extend the detention limit of a suspect to 42 days, so long as it was supported by a joint report by a chief constable and the director of public prosecutions.

The extension would then have to be approved by the Commons and the Lords within 30 days. But if either House voted against it, the power would end at midnight on the day of the debate.

The proposals are supported by some senior police officers – but could face a court challenge from the Equality and Human Rights Commission if passed.

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, the shadow security minister and chair of the joint intelligence committee, told the BBC she did not agree with the government’s approach.

“If there are an increase in plots it doesn’t follow, I fear, that the right way to deal with that is actually then to hold suspects for an even longer time.

“What you need if you’ve got an increase in plots is the right quantum of resources for both the police and the intelligence services to track and disrupt the plots – and that’s a question of bringing resources to bear.”

And since the motivating factor for would-be terrorists appears to be the unpopular wars in the Middle East with the US – why not kill two birds with one stone and bring the troops home?

Bugging scandal’s real victim is Babar Ahmad

If being a human rights lawyer makes you a “subversive” in the eyes of the securocrats, what hope for democracy? By which I mean, I think it would be a good idea as it’s clear there’s not even the pretence of democratic control over the security apparatus – a rather alarming fact.

General election called off, political cross-dressing between the three main parties, no promised referendum on the EU consti-treaty, prison officers banned from taking industrial action, plans to increase pre-charge detention yet again, the proliferation of casual surveillance – you can see the beginnings of a police state, or as it would no doubt be called, a “government of national unity”.

Since it’s denied that New Liebore MP was the target of the bugging, here’s the Socialist Worker‘s take on the whole affair:

Real victim of bugging scandal is Babar Ahmad
by Matthew Cookson

Arrested on the wishes of the US. Thrown in jail for the past three and a half years. Threatened with extradition on trumped up “terrorism” charges. And now it has been revealed that the police bugged his meetings with his MP.

That’s the story of Babar Ahmad, a south London IT worker, who is the real victim of the bugging scandal that has emerged over the last week.

The media and politicians have whipped themselves into a frenzy after it was revealed that meetings at Woodhill Prison between Sadiq Khan, MP for Tooting and a government whip, and Babar Ahmad had been bugged.

Senior police offices authorised the operation, apparently without the knowledge of then home secretary Jack Straw, who has now launched an inquiry into the case.

The inquiry ought to look at the outrageous way in which Babar Ahmad has been treated, and assess the impact of police surveillance upon those whose only crime is to oppose British foreign policy.

It will not. The MPs are merely concerned that their own private conversations are being listened to. But it is Babar who is suffering in this case.

He was arrested on 5 August 2004 after an extradition request from the US. It accused him of running a website supporting “terrorists” in Chechnya and Afghanistan.

Babar has not been charged with any crime in Britain and the attorney general has given written confirmation that there is insufficient evidence to charge him in this country.

But the British government is still aiding the US in its attempts to extradite Babar to face a trial there – a trial in the country that gave us Guantanamo Bay and secret rendition to torture centres around the world, and punishes people with the death penalty.

A high-profile campaign by Babar’s friends and family has so far frustrated this plan. But his case is now at the European Court of Human Rights, which will make a decision soon.

Sara Ahmad, Babar’s sister, told Socialist Worker, “We are very concerned that private meetings with his MP, at which the strategy to fight his extradition has been discussed, have been bugged.

“We are also concerned that his legal teams’ visits may also have been bugged, and are demanding to know whether the monitoring was at the request of the US. We also want to know whether the recorded discussions were passed on to the other side in preparation for its legal case?

“Our confidence in the Metropolitan Police and the authorities has plummeted.

“We have tried everything – petitions, letters, protests, attempting to get the Independent Police Complaints Commission to investigate. But Babar is still faced with extradition.

“The case shows Britain’s subservience to the US.”

The bugging scandal has revealed the continuing crackdown on civil liberties under the “war on terror” and New Labour’s increasingly authoritarian regime.

Security sources told the Times newspaper this week that many prisoners in British jails are routinely under covert electronic surveillance.

Matt Foot, a solicitor in north London, told Socialist Worker, “I was pleased to see the principled reaction of my old boss, Sadiq Khan, to the bugging of his prison visits with Babar Ahmed.

“Sadiq was a fine lawyer. He has also however been a pretty much establishment Blairite MP – with the exception of his stand over the war on Lebanon – and has been rewarded with a post as a government whip.

“But surely the real point here is, if the security services are bugging his prison visits what hope does that give to the rest of us?

“Jack Straw’s inquiry needs to take a look into the bugging of lawyers’ visits with their clients, and see who is accountable.”

New Labour MP experiences the surveillance state he’s helped create

Two notable facts:

1. Sadiq Khan is a whip and will have to convince backbench Labour MPs that 42 day pre-charge detention will not alienate Muslims.

2. Babar Ahmad was first arrested in December 2003 and released without charge, but was re-arrested for the benefit of the American government.

This prompts the question: was the bugging of his conversation with his MP (and childhood friend) carried out for the benefit of the American government?

From The News Line:

Justice secretary Jack Straw has had to order an inquiry into claims that police bugged Tooting Labour MP Sadiq Khan as he visited a friend and constituent in jail.

It was alleged yesterday that Khan and Babar Ahmad, who is fighting extradition to the US to face trumped-up charges, were recorded twice in Woodhill Prison, Milton Keynes.

The bugging is said to have been carried out by officers from the Metropolitan Police anti-terrorist branch during visits by Khan to the jail in 2005 and 2006.

Khan and Ahmad had been discussing sensitive personal and legal matters.

The bugging device was hidden inside a hollowed-out table in the prison’s main visiting hall.

The House of Commons home affairs committee will investigate the allegations as part of their inquiry into whether the UK is becoming a ‘surveillance society’.

Committee chairman Keith Vaz MP said that if the allegations were true they would take the surveillance society into an ‘entirely new dimension’.

Straw, who was informed of the allegations on Saturday, said: ‘It is completely unacceptable for an interview to be conducted by an MP on a constituent matter or in any other issue to be recorded.’

Computer operator Ahmad faces no charges in the UK, but the US is seeking to extradite him on suspicion of running websites raising funds for the Taleban, a charge he has consistently denied.

A spokesperson for Babar Ahmad’s family said: ‘It is outrageous what has happened, that the authorities felt the need to bug an innocent welfare visit by his MP.

‘We would like an investigation to be carried out to get to the bottom of this kind of misconduct.’

Tooting MP Khan, who is also a government whip, has been campaigning for Babar Ahmad to be released.

Khan said in a BBC interview yesterday: ‘Clearly I’m concerned. And that’s why I’m pleased that the Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw, as soon as he heard about these allegations yesterday, has ordered an enquiry.’

He added that he is ‘keen to find out whether the allegations are true, because the implications clearly are quite serious’.

International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander said the allegations were ‘extremely serious’.

He told the BBC: ‘I think there will be deep concern on all sides of the House of Commons if these allegations prove to be founded.’

It is believed that no politicians were involved in any decision to bug Khan’s conversations and that concerns about the matter had been raised by staff at Woodhill Prison.

The bugging of MPs by police has been barred since 1966.

A principle was established by the Wilson Labour government, following a series of eavesdropping scandals, that conversations between constituents and their MPs should be confidential.

A number of Labour MPs have reacted angrily to the revelations.

Birmingham Perry Barr MP, Khalid Mahmood, said: ‘It’s very regrettable. This Member of Parliament deserves the respect which he has been given by his constituents.

‘If he felt there was an issue of national interest Mr Khan himself would have made police aware. It is the wrong way for police to act.’

Thurrock MP Andrew McKinlay said it was ‘wholly unacceptable’ for MPs to be under surveillance.

The Surveillance State

From the Torygraph, by way of OurKingdom:

Councils, police and intelligence services are tapping and intercepting the phone calls, emails and letters of hundreds of thousands of people every year, an official report said.

Those being bugged include people suspected of illegal fly-tipping as councils use little known powers to carry out increasingly sophisticated surveillance to catch offenders.

The report, by Sir Paul Kennedy, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, has fuelled fears that Britain is becoming a state where private communications are routinely monitored.

It also found that more than 1,000 of the bugging operations were flawed. In some cases, the phones of innocent people were tapped simply because of administrative errors.

David Winnick, a Labour member of the Commons home affairs committee, said greater legal protection was needed to prevent abuse of surveillance powers. Britain already has more CCTV cameras per person than any other country in the world.

He said: “Most of these operations are needed and done for good reasons, but the numbers do raise concerns about the safeguards we have put in place to protect people from constant intrusion.”

Referring to George Orwell’s vision of a surveillance state, Mr Winnick added: “To walk blindfolded into 1984 is not anything that anybody in their right mind would want.”

Michael Parker of NO2ID, which campaigns against ID cards, said the figures showed the state’s desire to gather more information about people. “We are living in a surveillance state.”

The report shows that in the last nine months of 2006, there were 253,557 applications to intercept private communications under surveillance laws. It is understood that most were approved.

In that period 122 local authorities sought to obtain people’s private communications in more than 1,600 cases.

Councils are among more than 600 public bodies with the power to monitor people’s private communications.

Senior council officers are given the power to authorise surveillance in order to catch fly-tippers, benefit fraudsters and rogue traders. However, intelligence agencies must seek the permission of ministers while police need approval from chief constables.

Eric Pickles, the Conservative local government spokesman, said the use of surveillance powers against suspected fly-tippers was “completely over the top.”

Sir Paul, a senior judge with access to secret intelligence material, also reported 1,088 incidents where public bodies broke the rules on surveillance operations.

His report covers interception activities over a total of 264 days, during which time new applications for interception were made at a rate of 960 each day.

This did not include warrants personally issued by the Foreign Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary – thought to be several thousand – which are kept secret.

Each application under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act can cover several means of communication used by one named person, or all communications to and from a named building.

The Local Government Association defended the use of the powers against people “ruining the countryside or trying to take the taxpayer for a ride”.

Eric Metcalfe, a barrister who advises Justice, a civil rights group, called the findings “disturbing”. He added: “Putting the Home Secretary in charge of authorising interceptions is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.”

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: “It beggars belief that in a nine-month period, based on these figures, the entire City of Westminster could have had their phones tapped – yet Britain remains one of the few Western countries that won’t allow this evidence to be used in court … to prosecute criminals and terrorists.”

But Sir Paul confirmed that MI5 and other intelligence agencies remain opposed to any change in the law.

Will the terror threat be used to silence the blogosphere?

I was interested to hear about the Home Secretary’s latest wheeze:

Jacqui Smith said she wanted to use technology to stop “vulnerable people” being “groomed for violent extremism”.

“Because something is difficult, that is no reason not to have a go at it,” she added. “The internet can’t be a no-go area for government.”

Ms Smith is to discuss the plans with members of the communications industry.

She will meet internet service providers and members of the Muslim community to discuss measures to block websites which promote terrorism.

The home secretary said it would be possible to “learn lessons” about removing offensive material which was placed online.

What lessons?

New Labour has always been about “knowledge management” or spin, as most people would call it (bullshitting, to be plain).

The blogosphere, which exists immaterially through the medium of “the internets” – a series of tubes, I believe – is harder to manipulate as it is written by citizen journalists rather than the professional journalists of state-corporate media outlets. Bloggers little or no institutional filters – their biases are their own, if you will.

Remember what Bliar’s propaganda minister, Alistair Campbell (the originator of the false “45 minutes” claim used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq) had to say of blogs?

According to him, they were

“perceived as a positive development” but added that “some of the most offensive stuff” comes from them.

That comes from an article about a speech given by the director of the Press Complaints Commission calling for a voluntary code of conduct for the internet…

Now, the reaction to these statements from bloggers were on the whole negative. Perhaps because it was realised that “members of the communications industry” would be the volunteers, not the bloggers themselves and it would be a form of corporate rather than government censorship.

Anti-terror legislation has been used to clamp down on peaceful protesters – will the same thing happen to the internet?