Learning from Legend… the System Minotaur

Personal computers used to be fairly simple things. They had a CPU which did the work, some memory for it to keep things in, and a Basic Input/Output System to let it move things around. Anything more than that was usually up to the capabilities of whatever application you launched from the command line.

Nowadays, our PCs are complex structures, with abstract user interfaces which shield us from the underlying complexity of hundreds of concurrent and inter-related processes. Sometimes we must stray beyond the user interface, making our way – like Theseus – into the labyrinthine interior. And, like Theseus, we may well encounter a strange and fearsome beast in there… the System Minotaur. Although early PCs didn’t have a System Minotaur inside them, the current Minotaurs are actually atavistic successors of those in the computers of bygone, and more hostile times.

The first System Minotaur I ever encountered lurked at the heart of the IBM 4700 Finance Controller. It was a powerful and deeply unfriendly creature which responded only to arcane and complex incantations. One small mistake in these esoteric rituals, and it would – as likely as not – kill you, rip out your backbone and, in all probability, trample all over your discs. The current System Minotaurs in mazes such as Window and Linux have, through years of selective breeding and genetic modification, been made superficially more docile. If you handle them with care and point them in the right direction, you can use them to kill other, lesser vermin in the maze. But be warned: it doesn’t take much for the savage genes of their ancestors to surge to the surface and run amok – killing processes, crippling applications and, by all accounts, slaughtering virgins of either sex.

These legends tell of the hard lessons learned by our predecessors, and we ignore them at our peril…

Algerian concerns over biometric passports

Thanks (again) to the LSE’s Aaron Martin for spotting this article about reactions to the introduction of biometric passports in Algeria. I wanted to reproduce and translate a paragraph from the conclusion, because what the author argues is this: what has tended to grab the Algerian headlines about the biometric passport programme is the backlash from those who say it offends their religious sensibilities. Specifically, they object to the fact that women will have to remove their veil to be photographed and subsequently authenticated – exposing their face and ears. Men also object to the fact that ICAO specifications do not permit photographs in which the subject’s beard extends beyond the lower border of the photo (the author refers in particular to the long beards affected by ‘hundreds of thousands’ of Salafi adherents – a sect of Sunni muslims).

However, says Cherif Ouazani, this pre-occupation with beards and veils is obscuring the real issue, which is the assault on privacy. He goes on to describe the requirements imposed on passport applicants at the time of registration:

“In addition to photos and digital fingerprints, the application includes a birth certificate with the barbaric designation “12 S”, signed by the mayor, and a duly completed 12-page form. School and university career must be documented, and one must give the names, addresses and telephone number or email address of three classmates. Men must provide information about their national service with, there too, names and contact details of three former comrades from their unit. On top of that, when submitting the application, the applicant must be accompanied by a “co-respondant” attesting to the truthfulness of the information presented.”

Here’s the original text:

“Le dossier du requérant comprend en effet, outre les photos et la prise d’empreintes digitales, un acte de naissance à la dénomination barbare, « 12 S », signé par le maire et un formulaire de douze pages dûment rempli. Le cursus scolaire et universitaire doit être détaillé, et l’on doit donner les noms de trois camarades de classe, leur adresse, leur numéro de téléphone ou leur e-mail. Pour les hommes, des informations sur le service national sont requises, avec, là aussi, une référence à trois anciens camarades du contingent, avec leurs coordonnées. En sus, au moment d’effectuer ces démarches, le demandeur devra être accompagné d’un « répondant », attestant de la véracité des informations données.”

What I find interesting are the multiple respects in which the ICAO requirements, the practicalities and the Algerian cultural context all clash. For pragmatic and (principally) airline security reasons, the ICAO requirements are drafted without regard for cultural or gender nuances. ICAO don’t care what the social position of women is, or who does or doesn’t have a military national service requirement… and yet in the implementation, those factors result in gender-based differences in the levels of proof required, and the intrusion into the privacy of third parties.

In theory, in the UK, the deployment of biometric passports would be subject to a Privacy Impact Assessment, which in turn would – in this instance – presumably at least raise questions of gender/religious discrimination, even if it didn’t resolve them. That’s what I’d like to imagine, anyway. But then, as you know, I am an incurable optimist.

Reality checking the reality check…

Many thanks to Aaron Martin of the London School of Economics (LSE), for pointing me to the BBC site, where Daniel Sandford (Home Affairs Correspondent) offers a “Reality Check” on Labour and Conservative approaches to CCTV surveillance and DNA retention. Unfortunately, the section on DNA retention is rather undermined by the strange decision to omit any mention of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling in the case of UK vs S and Marper.

Whatever the preferences of the police and the political parties, they will have to be tempered by the fact that the present government has already suffered a damning and unanimous defeat in the European Court of Human Rights over its DNA retention policy.

That judgement – handed down in November 2008, by the way – criticised the the ‘blanket’ and ‘disproportionate’ nature of the government’s actions in forthright language. A year later, in November 2009, the government’s position still had not shifted enough to convince the ECHR that it was compliant. Arguably, even now, the government has yet to comply with the ruling – we just haven’t had any test cases to see whether the ECHR agrees. Yet.

For background, if you’re interested, here is a link to my analysis of how things stood in November 2009, and then in December.

Shame on you, Mr Home Secretary

The current Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, has used a pre-election press conference to promote the use of CCTV for law enforcement, accompanied by Katie Piper, who was the victim of an acid-throwing attack. Based on the BBC report, the implication is that CCTV played a part in the arrest of her attackers – though this is not explicitly stated. Nor does the article mention the conspiracy between Katie Piper’s violent boyfriend and the accomplice who threw the acid (in other words, the attack was instigated by someone already known to, and close to Katie Piper).

Her story is tragic, and the violent assaults on her despicable and repellent. I have deep sympathy for her, and huge admiration for the courage and determination with which she has rebuilt her life and established a charity to help victims of disfiguring injuries. I cannot blame her for wanting to publicise her perspective on CCTV.

That said, there are things about this press conference which make me profoundly uneasy. Clearly, it would be wrong to say that the Home Secretary is exploiting Ms Piper. She has her own clear agenda, and is obviously confident in expressing her independent view – and all credit to her for doing so.

I think my unease is more about the use the Home Secretary is making of Ms Piper’s case. First, as I say, the strong implication is that the criminals were caught and identified because of CCTV footage. The account and images reproduced in this article, though, suggest that CCTV can have been, at best, an incidental part of the evidence leading to the identification of the acid-thrower; there is no mention of Ms Piper’s boyfriend himself appearing on CCTV footage at all – because according to her testimony, he telephoned her to ask what she was wearing, so that he could pass that information on to his accomplice to identify her.

In other words, the link between the attacker and the boyfriend is most likely to have been established by police investigation, not through CCTV evidence.

The Home Secretary also weaves a bizarre path between claiming that Britain is getting safer and safer, and warning that unless CCTV is spread still further, we are all at risk, by implication, of having acid thrown at us. The Conservatives, he says, are guilty of a ‘fundamental deceit’ in claiming that Britain is ‘broken’, and David Cameron is wrong to use ‘a series of tragic incidents to try and paint the worst possible picture of our society’.

Forgive me if I’m misunderstanding this, Mr Johnson, but aren’t you using a tragic incident to try and convince us that the future of our society depends on ubiquitous CCTV coverage, in the face of factual evidence from the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office itself that its effectiveness has decreased even with increased deployment?

It is also, I think, deeply regrettable that Ms Price, either of her own will or prompted by the Labour PR team, resorted to the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” argument. As I say, I have no right – or wish – to question her motivation for doing so, but I feel entitled to question the Home Secretary’s right to legislate on that basis – and here’s the logic for doing so:

More cameras mean more information, about more citizens, being viewed by more watchers. If that is not the case, the cameras are pointless and, arguably, illegal. If it is the case, it increases the probability of CCTV data being inappropriately used – in some cases, to enable or commit crime rather than prevent it. As for “nothing to hide”, think of this: is it a matter of public record when you are in your house and when you are not? Can you think of any circumstances under which that information might put you or your property at risk?

It is disingenuous of the Home Secretary to formulate the policy argument with no reference to this risk and others like it. It is dangerous for him to formulate policy on the basis that CCTV can be deployed without corresponding spending on governance measures – at a time when we know we face spending cuts which will cut exactly that kind of job.

The Home Secretary proposes that people should be allowed to petition for the installation of more CCTV cameras. It’s tempting to write that off as a piece of pre-election headline-grabbing – but that would be irresponsible.

If Mr Johnson is serious, the serious response is this:

  • any measure allowing such petitions should be balanced by legal requirements to define and cost the governance regime which will apply to the installation over its lifetime;
  • it should explain how the data captured will be managed under applicable data protection and human rights law, and who will meet the costs of doing so over the lifespan of the data [NB – not just the lifespan of the camera installation];
  • it should mandate the labelling of all CCTV installations (whether privately or publicly operated) with the purpose of the system, and the identity and contact details of the operator;
  • it should explain what regulatory body is responsible for regulating CCTV data collection, retention, disclosure and deletion;
  • it should explain what regulatory body would be responsible for identifying and shutting down ‘orphan’ CCTV installations;
  • and it should establish a corresponding right for citizens to petition for the removal of CCTV systems.

If he is serious, he should explain why the UK has no legal framework for the governance of CCTV installations, just an unenforced and widely-ignored code of conduct.

I should stress – I’m not inventing anything new here; others, including graphiclunarkid and SpyBlog havewritten excellent pieces on what is wrong with UK CCTV and what could be done to improve matters. Indeed, given that some of their advice is two years old now, it is depressing that the Home Secretary has disregarded it in favour of a superficial pre-election PR gesture.

Allowing the proliferation of unregulated cameras is cheap and easy – especially if you are not concerned about increased risk and lack of effectiveness. If the Home Secretary were serious, he would ban the further deployment of CCTV until there is a governance regime in place which makes it safe and effective. The problem is, he could not afford such a regime even if it existed.

Putting the DE Bill in perspective

It’s tempting, particularly as a subject matter expert, to take parliamentary reverses personally.

The recent “wash-up” treatment of the Digital Economy Bill attracted the attention of geeks and techies like few parliamentary issues I can remember, with 20,000 people reportedly writing to their MPs to object; a world-wide “trending topic” on Twitter (#DEBill); uncounted people watching the “debate” on TV or live via the web; and so on.

Many of those people remarked that it was the first time they had paid such close attention to the passage of a Bill through our legislature – and many also remarked that those debutants will have been dismayed and discouraged by what they saw. Just to recap:

– the sponsor of this Bill, Lord Mandelson, is an unelected participant in our government – promoted to a peerage so that he could be given a place in Gordon Brown’s cabinet;

– the Bill itself, regardless of party political affiliations, is widely acknowledged to be complex and far-reaching… attempting to address a swathe of unrelated issues including broadband coverage, regional news broadcasts, radio frequency allocation, the statutory role of Channel 4 (!), copyright, and illegal file-sharing;

– ordinarily, a Bill of this scope would expect to go through 3-4 weeks of line-by-line examination in the Commons Committee Stage. This Bill did not (the Committee Stage was compressed to a couple of hours as part of the “wash-up”);

– The “wash-up” itself meant that the Government’s business managers deliberately put into the ‘fast-track, compromise process’ a Bill which they knew was too large, complex and contentious to receive adequate consideration;

– like few issues to date (but more and more in future, I suspect) it brings public policy-making increasingly close to technology specifics. Too close, one suspects, for the MP who apparently thinks that the “IP” in “IP Address” stands for Intellectual Property. (Stop sniggering at the back… and no, it doesn’t stand for Intellectual Pygmy either, Molesworth);

– and those tuning in to watch the proceedings will instantly have been struck by the pathetically insignificant percentage of MPs who even attended, let alone contributed to the debate. When the electorate is constantly blamed for failure to engage with the political process, or turn out to vote, the sight of a 6% turn-out by our elected law-makers sets a poor example as few other things could.

As will be clear by now, there is ample material for anyone who wants to show what a dismal farce our parliamentary process can be. For those of us who live in the digital domain, it is depressing and de-motivating to see our pet subject treated so shabbily.

And yet…

And yet… just because it is our pet subject, we should do what we can to keep this in perspective. For instance, even in the relatively short time I have been interested in the public policy dimensions of IT (or indeed any other topic), there are other examples I can point to which aroused exactly the same feelings of outrage, powerlessness and depression. In the spirit of helping us all come to terms with the DEBill fiasco, here are a few of them:

(1) Pride of place must surely go to the ID Cards Bill; how many pieces of legislation lead the Home Secretary to launch personal attacks on individual academics from the safety of their ministerial and parliamentary position? The unspeakable in defence of the indefensible. But the Government’s obduracy on ID Cards persists even to the 2010 budget: they would sooner cut the budgets for education, healthcare and law enforcement than the ID Card scheme.

(2) 90-day detention without trial; defeated by a single vote in the House of Commons on 9/11 (that’s November the 9th… 2005 – and incidentally, Mr Blair’s first Commons defeat). This, despite [the then perennial Chancellor] Gordon Brown having been recalled from the tarmac at Ben Gurion so that he could vote, rather than mediate between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas. What far-sighted and statesmanlike prioritisation.

(3) exemption of MPs’ expenses and correspondence from the Freedom of Information Act; David Maclean’s contemptible bid to ensure that MPs not only set and vote on their own remuneration, but that the results should be beyond scrutiny.

(4) the Audit Commission’s blanket discriminatory treatment of local government employees’ payroll data and banking details; using the “National Fraud Initiative” legislation to compel local authorities (but not other public sector bodies such as central government departments, teachers, healthcare workers or forces personnel) to disclose the banking details of their employees – whether or not that included joint bank accounts.

(5) the egregious National DNA Database, which continues to be stocked in contravention to a damning and unanimous ECHR ruling that it “overstepped any acceptable margin” of proportionality. By the way, the ECHR is due to have reviewed, in March, the Government’s progress towards compliance with the ruling. I wonder what they will have made of the current Home Secretary’s decision to make DNA retention an election issue.

Oh, the list could go on and on. And to accusations of political partiality I will say only this:

I’ve only ever blogged under a Labour government. If a non-Labour government fails to provide just as much blog-fodder, I will supplement that dwindling diet with my hat.

So, the DEBill is a child of many parents, none of them loving. Its offspring, the DEAct, is an orphan work which will mate (unnaturally, of course, for it is an unnatural Act) with the next government and give birth to many more little mutant offspring, many of them midwived by the law courts, and each as misconceived and grotesque as the next.

Probably not even their own progenitor, Lord Mandelson, could love them.

But we shall, because, hideous as they will all undoubtedly be, each one will remind us that we told them the Bill was flawed, badly drafted and unworkable, and we will feel vindicated.

Why they say "No" and vote "Yes"

Thanks to all on Twitter who ReTweeted the link to the previous post – much appreciated! A couple of people have asked why an MP would speak opposing the Bill and then vote for it… There are as many answers to that question as there are voting MPs (especially on yesterday’s dismal attendance), and they vary depending on how cynical you want to get – but at the heart of it are these two principles:

  1. Parliamentary (and legislative) procedure is a game. It’s a process with rules.
  2. As @iglazer so pithily put it recently: “in any game, gaming the rules is one of the rules of the game”.

Voting for something you apparently oppose, at its second reading, may look irrational to us, but then, so might a chess player who sacrifices a piece early in the game; they may know something we don’t about the subsequent moves.

To take the analogy a little further: in the parliamentary chess-game, we are pawns (if that). That may be an uncomfortable idea, but think of it like this: have you ever written to your MP? The vast majority of people have not. If you have, have you written more than once? Still fewer voters have written to their MP on more than one issue.

In other words, to MPs, the vast majority of constituents are either completely silent (off the board) or ‘single-issue lobbyists’ (pawns, with only one move). [Oh boy, this analogy is getting scary: how to pawns make a difference? Either by acting in concert with each other, or by making that long and risky journey to the other side of the board and getting elected. Sorry, promoted.]

Anyway, back to the rules. An MP like Austin Mitchell can honestly say that he stood up in the house, made his own objections clear, and represented the views of those of his constituents who wrote to him. Knowing that Labour have an over-all majority, and that the party whips had made it clear members were expected to support their party’s policy, he can then also say that a single rebellious vote would not make any difference to the Bill’s passage.

While their constituents are ‘single-issue lobbyists’, MPs have to live with their whips throughout their career – and deal with them on every issue, not just one. If you are of the philosophy that “it’s the squeaky wheel that gets oiled”, that may be a good thing. If your view is that “the nail which stands out gets hammered in”, it is less appealing. (By all accounts, Mr Mitchell is a serial nail, by the way – and much respect to him for it. I would say “more power to him” – but that’s not how it works).

When I said above that “a single rebellious vote wouldn’t make any difference to the Bill’s passage”, I chose my words carefully. In particular, I didn’t say that it would make no difference to the Bill’s contents. There is clearly a delicate line to tread, particularly in the early readings of a Bill, between obdurate opposition and careful negotiation.

By expressing strong reservations about some clauses, but agreeing to the over-all tenor of the Bill, some MPs will clearly be hoping to get concessions on some of the specifics. As one insider put it to me: “There is horse-trading, but very little and generally around fine detail”. Again, the government’s over-all majority simply means that, by the rules of the game, there is minimal chance of overturning the legislation as a whole. Those MPs who can be bothered can at most hope to press for some deferrals or qualifications.

Regrettably, most of them are already captivated by the new shiny thing (an election campaign) or slinking away from the old, tarnished thing (a bankrupt government, presiding over a discredited parliament).

I’ve quoted this before (Otto von Bismarck, disputedly), but it doesn’t get any less apposite:

„Je weniger die Leute wissen, wie Würste und Gesetze gemacht werden, desto besser schlafen sie!“

“The less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep”.

Yesterday in Parliament

Apologies to BBC Radio 4 for plagiarising what is probably their copyright programme title. Still, it seems everyone is at it these days, so if the BBC does decide to get litigious, there are bigger targets ahead of me in the queue – notably Lord Mandelson himself, sponsor of the Digital Economy Bill.

We have all grown used to politicians bemoaning the lack of public engagement with politics, and asking why so few people – especially “the young” – see voting as a vital civic duty. Indeed, from 1955 to 1992, UK voter turn-out at General Elections oscillated in a fairly narrow band between about 72% and 78%. In 1992 it was 77.7%; in 1997, 71.4%; then in 2002 it fell to 59.4% and in 2005 it stayed at 61.4%. In the context of the previous half-century, electoral participation fell off a cliff.

61.4% voter turn-out may or may not seem like a lot, but it comfortably outstrips MPs’ participation in yesterday’s proceedings. Out of 646 MPs, about 40 turned up: that’s 6.2%.

A small handful of MPs both made sense and expressed their (and voters’) opposition to the Bill – notably Austin Mitchell, Tom Watson and John Redwood. John Grogan was widely cited on Twitter for pointing out the dubious circumstances under which established media industries gained access to Lord Mandelson in the run-up to the Bill’s submission.

Still more MPs condemned the way in which the Bill (a far-reaching, complex and controversial piece of legislation by any standards) has been rushed through the parliamentary process – describing it as ‘a shameful piece of rail-roading’, ‘squalid collusion between the three front benches’, ‘a disgrace’. One MP – otherwise a vociferous supporter of the Bill, said they had been “thoroughly let down by the Government’s business managers”.

For more detailed analysis and reaction, see this commendable post by internet law specialist Lilian Edwards and this fulminating open letter by web developer Mo McRoberts.

On the face of it, then, objecters to the Bill seem to have got their point across – if only to a few MPs. I know, too, that there were people following yesterday’s debate who have never done so before – on television, over the internet, via Twitter and so on. So much the better, you might think, for that elusive ‘voter engagement’.

Regrettably, yesterday’s debate cast our parliamentary process in the worst possible light. The sight of that almost empty chamber makes an instant and damaging impression. The incoherent ramblings of several of the contributors, interrupted by mostly pointless (or worse, point-scoring) demands for the speaker to “give way” don’t help. The pinnacle of debate was reached, it seemed to me, by the softly-spoken Derek Wyatt (Lab – Sittingbourne). “The DEBill is not perfect”, he said, “but I think we should give it a try”. What kind of a basis is that for legislation, for goodness’ sake? I wonder if he would say the same thing about mephedrone.

By far the most damaging aspect, though, is this:

  • Out of 646 MPs, a scant three dozen turned up;
  • Of those, about a dozen made substantive speeches – most just sat there;
  • Of those who spoke, some criticised the substance of the Bill, but even those in favour of it frequently condemned the way in which it has been shoved through Parliament…

and yet all of them, without exception, voted it through its second reading.

There we have it. Members of all three parties expressed opposition to at least some parts of the Bill, and objected to the abuse of process which will see it evade proper scrutiny, debate and revision.

But they still voted in favour – and to most of those watching (especially if it’s for the first time) that is utterly incomprehensible.

This will affect “voter engagement”, without a doubt – but just like the DEBill itself, the consequences are entirely unpredictable. Judging by the Twitter traffic, a lot of people were simply angered enough to vote against the Bill’s proponents, regardless of political affiliation.

Many, though, will simply shrug their shoulders and turn away in disgust, wondering why they bothered to take an interest. The opposite of love is not hate, I was once told. It is indifference.