Blunkett’s hybrid legacy

I had quite forgotten the extraordinary parallels between the story of the Gordian Knot and our own recent political history. Like me, what you probably remember is that Alexander the Great was challenged to undo the intractable Gordian Knot, and instead of faffing about with bits of string, simply whipped out his sword and hacked the whole thing apart. However, like me you may have forgotten who Gordias was in the first place. So, a brief digression:

The ancient Phrygians, in their mythical past (pre CFC), found themselves in an interregnum. Consulting an oracle, they were simply instructed to appoint as their king the next man who drove an ox-cart into the city. That man was Gordias – and so with no further ado, he was made leader. It was as transparent and representative as that. Plus ça change…

But back to our own times.

Let’s face it, an announcement by David Blunkett that the Government should abandon its plans for a national ID Card was always going to be a gift for headline-writers – and they have duly gone for it, mostly along the lines of ‘Blunkett says “scrap ID Cards”, 8 years after suggesting them’. Other commenters have noted, however, that reports of its death are exaggerated. Over at the Himmelgarten Café, for instance, the improbably-named Costigan Quist points out some of the absurdities of this new approach.

So, how different is the attention-grabbing idea Mr Blunkett aired at InfoSec 2009 yesterday? Well – what he is not suggesting is that the Government should abandon its ambition of a database of unique citizen biometrics, or that it should give up on biometric credentials. What he is proposing is that biometric passports be made mandatory.

I know what you’re thinking…

That won’t work, because as Jacqui Smith and Meg Hillier have astutely pointed out, a passport is too big to be conveniently carried in the clubbing attire of many of the young people who “can’t wait” to get their own ID card.

Blunkett is ready for that one, though – after all, he didn’t get where he is today [? Ed.] without understanding the needs of the nightclub generation. [?? Ed.] No – for an extra charge, people who want their “biometric passport” in a more convenient form can have it as, say, a small plastic card.

It’s probably just as well that he’s suggesting the plastic card option be retained, because on the face of it, that’s about all you could fit between the old policy stance and the new one.

In other words, what appeared to be a radical U-turn is actually what is more accurately called a “J-turn“. A J-turn is like a classic ‘bootleg’ turn (think ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, ‘Rockford Files’ or the ‘Dooks of Hazzard’) except that for a J-turn, the car is already going backwards before the manoeuvre is executed. And I suspect that’s what we’re seeing here. The government has less and less to gain from embarking on the implementation of a multi-billion pound IT project which both opposition parties have said they will scrap if and when Labour lose office… and less and less money with which to begin their attempt.

Time must surely be up for anything overtly labelled as a national identity card – but then, as Blunkett admitted yesterday, that was always a more or less mythical animal. Chimera-like, it was made from bits of several other beasts: a biometric passport (blamed on ICAO), bits and pieces of biometrics (maybe face, maybe fingerprints, probably not DNA), biographical information, name-and-address records, and a cost-case which deliberately sought to weld all those different genetic donor beasts into one – if you’ll pardon the name – “Gordian” mess.

What remains to be seen is whether that hybrid can be kept alive until the current government’s successors face the decision of whether or not to put it down.

Privacy Good Practice

Over on Twitter, both Toby Stevens and Privacy International have noted this Register article about Privacy Notices… you know – those appalling screeds of text which bury you in useless information, and which are designed to produce enough (virtual) paper to cover the (virtual) backside of the publishing site in case they ever have to argue about your privacy rights.

The Register piece in turn reports on a US Government study into whether privacy notices “do their job of informing consumers and helping them to make a decision”, and whether they do it better if expressed as a table rather than as a wall of text.

The study concluded that tables are better – which was good news for me, as that was the approach I adopted back in March when Future Identity Ltd was asked to draft a privacy policy for a local club. Here’s a link to the site, in case you’re interested: Trowbridge Aikikai – Your Privacy.

Having looked at their site and how it works, I also thought it would be good practice to give members some guidance about what happens if they opt to “Register” via the website. You can view that here: Guidance about registering.

Any questions/comments/suggestions welcome, either via the Comments function here, or by email to me – mail at futureidentity dot eu

"Ayo Gurkhali!" – the shameful irony

[Updated 18:05, 29/04/09 – Gordon Brown (and, indirectly, the policy-owning Home Office) has been defeated in a Commons vote on the Gurkha issue. 28 Labour MPs are understood to have rebelled explicitly, including one who resigned his post as a parliamentary private secretary so as to be able to vote against the Government. A number more abstained as an indirect way of seeing the proposals founder.]

Our Government continues to wriggle and nitpick in a way which goes beyond penny-pinching, and loiters somewhere between callous and despicable.

One might wonder why the proud Nepalis come, generation after generation, to serve and die for our country – remote, indifferent and ungrateful as it must so often seem – but they do, and our armed forces are only too happy to have them. They have served in the British Army for almost 200 years, and with such bravery and distinction that the Victoria Cross has been awarded to Gurkha Regiments 26 times.

Here is one example of such an action, though as you can see here, many others would serve to illustrate the point just as well:

Ninthoukhong, Burma June 1944

… B Company, 7th Gurkha Rifles, was ordered to counter-attack and restore the situation. Shortly after passing the starting line it came under heavy enemy medium machine-gun and tank machine-gun fire at point blank range, which covered all lines of approach. Rifleman Ganju Lama, the No.1 of the PIAT gun, on his own initiative, with great coolness and complete disregard for his own safety, crawled forward and engaged the tanks single handed. In spite of a broken left wrist and two other wounds, one in his right hand and one in his leg, caused by withering cross fire concentrated upon him, Rifleman Ganju Lama succeeded in bringing his gun into action within thirty yards of the enemy tanks and knocked out first one and then another, the third tank being destroyed by an anti-tank gun. In spite of his serous wounds, he then moved forward and engaged with grenades the tank crews, who now attempted to escape. Not until he hand killed them all, thus enabling his company to push forward, did he allow himself to be taken back to the Regimental Aid Post to have his wounds dressed…….

Gurkhas continue to serve, and die, alongside other British and Commonwealth forces in Afghanistan, and at a time when the Government is prepared to bail out reckless banks and stand by while those bail-outs subsidise collossal pension payouts, its niggardliness in the matter of Gurkhas’ pensions and UK residence entitlements is simply breathtaking.

One of the things a Gurkha’s opponent probably least wants to hear is their battle-cry “Ayo Gurkhali!”. It means “the Gurkhas are coming!”. Our country has been profiting from the arrival of the Gurkhas for almost 200 years. That our Government should respond with such discriminatory meanness shames us all.

There is an online petition here on the Gurkha Justice Campaign site.

Home Office launches RIPA consultation

The Home Office has launched a public consultation into aspects of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).

Specifically, the consultation covers “Consolidating Orders”, which are the lists of public authorities to make use of covert investigation under the Act. At a rough count, there are some 53 ‘headline’ public bodies in the list – although I use the term ‘headline’ because some entries in the list actually refer to types of public body which are, in turn, far more numerous. For example, “local authorities” is one of the 53 line items, but that category actually includes 433 public bodies across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The consultation also covers two Codes of Practice which are to be used to provide further guidance on how the Act is supposed to be used. Presumably this reflects noticeable public concern about episodes such as

– the bugging of MP Sadiq Khan while he was visiting one of his constituents in prison;
– police access to information from the office and home of Damien Green, MP;
– numerous reports of the Act being invoked for dubiously trivial purposes;

and persistent tensions* between, on the one hand, the powers granted under RIPA, and on the other hand, relevant statutory rights on the other – such as those provided by PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984), common law, and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and its national analogues.

If you plan to respond to the consultation, you should probably get down to it soon. The consultation document itself is 121 pages long (not counting, of course, the relevant sections of RIPA itself and any other documents you might want to research and refer to), and responses have to be in by July 10th.

[Oh, and by the way – this is not the same as another planned consultation exercise on the question of how the government will manage the retention of communications data across all commercial carriers and channels of communication.]

*For a fascinating and detailed examination of some of those tensions, I can recommend this report of an appeal case heard in the House of Lords last December. Among other things, it clarifies the difference between the status of a statutory instrument like RIPA and that of a Code of Practice such as the two put forward with the current consultation.

McDonald [Barry McDonald QC, for the Appellant] pointed out that RIPA came into force on 25 September 2000. The Code of Practice on which the PSNI and Secretary of State’s case were based only came into force two years later, in July 2002. As a Code, it did not require nor receive the attention of both Houses; it was not preceded by a white or green paper; it was not legally binding.

McDonald pointed out that two different codes had been in operation. The first, which provided fewer safeguards around surveillance, was possibly a draft and had been in existence for five years without this fact being noticed by the Surveillance Commissioner. There had been no explanation for this discrepancy or the subsequent introduction of the second, different Code.

The report also includes the following observation by one of the Law Lords, on lawyer-client privilege in police station premises:

There was a lengthy debate among the Law Lords as to whether it was more or less serious to have overt surveillance (i.e. someone sitting in on a conversation between client and solicitor) or the possibility of covert surveillance such as happened in Antrim PSNI station. After much probing by the Law Lords, McDonald said that in both cases the same unacceptable end was achieved, in that the right to a private conversation between a solicitor and a client was extinguished and a lawyer could thus not obtain complete instructions from his/her client. However, overt surveillance was easier to address as the fact that it had taken place was obvious to all involved. Covert surveillance was very much more difficult to prove and consequently to challenge effectively. Carswell LJ pointed out that he rather doubted that any solicitor of any merit, using Antrim police station, was unaware of the systematic bugging.

True as Lord Justice Carswell’s comment might be, it does little to address Mr McDonald’s point. After all, if a solicitor sits down with his client in a police cell and opens the conversation with “as an experienced solicitor in the Province, I have to tell you that any conversation in this room is probably recorded by the police”, it still prevents the client from fully instructing the lawyer, and does nothing to prove whether bugging is taking place or not.

Verbal ping-pong

I’m told that, in some of the seedier parts of places like Bangkok, one of the louche entertainments involves watching ladies launch ping-pong balls across the room from surprisingly inappropriate parts of their anatomy. Not having been there, I wouldn’t know – but although I’ve never experienced this dubious diversion I think I have some inkling of what it must be like.

I’ve just been listening to Martha Kearney interviewing former Home Secretaries Michael Howard and Charles Clarke, and asking them if they feel any sympathy for the topical travails of the current post-holder, Jacqui Smith. Charles Clarke said yes, he did; Michael Howard said no, not so much. So far, so straightforward. Bodily orifices and language all being used as normal.

However, Mr Clarke then went on to say that he felt the job of Home Secretary was a difficult one to do if one lacked previous political experience in a high level cabinet post, and “intellectual self-confidence”. It was at that point that I heard the sound of a ping-pong ball hitting the floor some distance across the room.

Those ill-disposed towards Mr Clarke will probably reflect that his own “intellectual self-confidence” is seldom lacking and often comes across as plain arrogance. Those ill-disposed towards Ms Smith might wonder if he’s accusing her of being thick. With expressions of sympathy like that, who needs critics?

Politicians don’t always use their mouths and words the same way as the rest of us. It many not be an attractive sight, but it’s an amusing enough diversion if you like these kinds of low entertainment…

Ecclestone pulling the strings again…?

If you were to do a “keyword in context” search for the name Bernie Ecclestone, it’s a fair bet that most of the occurrences would be near words like ‘supremo’, ‘ringmaster’, ‘impresario’ and ‘puppetmaster’.

His entry in Forbes Magazine’s “World’s Richest” list describes him thus:

“In 2005 he sold his remaining stake in the racing giant to CVC Capital Partners, a leading European private equity firm, then turned around and reinvested with CVC in a new joint company called Alpha Prema. The new corporation now controls 100% of Formula One Group, and Bernie still gets to direct the empire.” (If you have the head for a longer spin on this Financier’s Carousel, try this article on ABCMoney).

Experience suggests that whatever changes take place across the franchise, Mr E tends to end up (a) getting what he wants and (b) trousering the proceeds.

With that in mind, what are we to make of the latest wranglings around the UK’s Grand Prix – due to start a 10-year contract at Donington Park from 2010, instead of Silverstone? Well, judging by the public statements (for instance, here on the BBC site), Uncle Bernie “doesn’t know what the situation is” or “what the details are”… but a little later says that he’s “been in talks with Simon [Gillett – current leaseholder of the Donnington facilities] and we’ve been talking through the money situation”. Apparently “what [Simon] really needs is an investor, that’s the best hope of saving the race”.

Behind this amiable concern and good-natured search for a simple solution to the problem lurk a couple of other layers, though.

Mr Gillett ‘needs an investor’ because he’s being taken to court for rent arrears on the Donington lease by the actual owner, Tom Wheatcroft. Mr Wheatcroft, apparently, is a “close friend of the Formula 1 supremo” [sic]… So from this new perspective, what we have is a close friend of Bernie Ecclestone, suing someone who is being amiably advised by Bernie that what he needs is an investor who can help him out of this little mess.

There’s a thing in chess called the Zwischenzug, or double threat. It’s a classic particularly with the knight, because compared with other pieces, the knight’s final resting-place is rather more ‘obliquely’ related to his initial direction of movement. Grandmaster Ecclestone is, if anything, achieving a masterly triple threat here.

– He has already had another pop at a favourite target, the Government, for failing to subsidise this multi-billion pound monopoly as it sponsors, say, the Olympics. Under current conditions, it’s overwhelmingly unlikely that the Government would have a sudden change of heart and pump money into the Donington facilities, but if they did, Bernie would get what he wanted at the taxpayer’s expense;

– Mr Gillett may crack under the threat of legal action and accept Bernie’s generous offer of “investment”, which is bound to have strings attached relating to increased control over the venue and its Grand Prix receipts – something Bernie has never managed to winkle out of the British Racing Drivers’ Club at Silverstone;

– Ultimately, even if the Donington deal does fall through, Ecclestone can rub the BRDC’s nose in it by choosing to cross the British Grand Prix off the race calendar rather than return it to Silverstone.

All this may help to explain why, unless you’re a grandmaster yourself, chess – for all its ruthlessness and tactical complexity – is utterly absorbing for the players themselves but a pretty lousy spectator sport.

David Cameron on "Today" Programme

David Cameron took the 08:10 “politics” slot on the Today programme this morning, interviewed by Sarah Montague about the budget, the economy and what the Conservatives would do about the deficit unveiled by Mr Darling on Wednesday. Actually, I should put it more strongly than that: ‘interviewed about what the Conservatives will do…”. It’s an interesting sub-current of the media coverage I’ve seen/heard since the budget, that it is universally based on an assumption that whatever Messrs. Brown and Darling are doing now will, after the next election, no longer be Labour’s problem to sort out.

Asked to give some specific examples of areas in which he would cut public spending, Cameron’s answer was revealing. Without hesitation, he singled out those areas in which there is an “extension of government”; his first two examples were the National ID Scheme and the ContactPoint directory. Returning to the topic a few moments later, he added the NHS’ National Patient Record database. I find this interesting in three respects.

First, he was being asked about cost-cutting measures – so on the economic level, it’s clear that he sees these as programmes which should not now be funded from the public purse;

Second, behind the economic rationale, there’s clearly an ideological motive based on rolling back the ‘extension of government’;

Third, politicians don’t like to admit to cuts in public expenditure unless they are pretty sure that the things they want to cut are sufficiently unpopular with the electorate. The fact that he singled out three projects which are often characterised as elements of the “database state” is, I think, significant. It suggests he thinks there is a public sentiment to tap into which – for whatever reason – does not favour these kinds of system.

So, what might lie behind this perception? Are the public for or against things like the ID Card scheme? Well, a quick and un-scientific internet search returns the following data points:

  • 2002: “four out of five people are in favour of a biometric identity card” (Home Office)
  • 2003: “more than 5000 out of 7000 responses to a public consultation were against the scheme” (Home Office response to parliamentary question)
  • 2004: 48% against, 31% in favour (Privacy International)
  • 2005: 66% against a £6bn scheme (YouGov, Telegraph, before London Bombings)
  • 2005: 42% against, 45% in favour (No2ID, after London 7/7 Bombings)
  • 2008: 48% against, 43% in favour (YouGov)

If one can draw any conclusions from this, they are probably as follows:

  1. It depends how you ask the question. (Questions relating each option to a specific cost seem to produce much less equivocal results – the higher the financial cost, the lower the approval rating);
  2. It depends how you count the results. (The “>5000/7000 negative responses” were apparently discounted by the policymakers because over 4000 of them came via a single campaigning website…);
  3. It depends how reliable you think people’s responses are. (Privacy International, for instance, has consistently maintained that the public are not in a position to make an informed decision, notably because possible harm from a comprehensive life-long audit trail is not accounted for in the available information about the scheme);
  4. Public opinion is swayed by public events. (Support appeared to increase in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, despite the then Home Secretary’s admission that an ID card had not stopped the Madrid bombings and would not have prevented the London ones; support appears to have been eroded by successive public sector data breach revelations).

It’s a huge topic. I can recommend two papers which give a fascinating look at the connections between public perception, press coverage and policy in this area. Here are links to both:

Media and Public Perceptions of Identity Cards, Privacy and Surveillance“; Dr. Edgar Whitley, LSE, December 2008

ID Cards – A snapshot of the debate in the UK press“; Elisa Pieri, University of Manchester, April 2009