Privacy, remember, is only for criminals

September 25th, 2014 [link]

So it begins. The next steps by the National Security state to ensure that nobody has the right to private communications or data.

FBI Director James Comey on Thursday said he’s bothered by moves by Apple Inc. and Google Inc. to market privacy innovations on smartphones that put some data out of the reach of police, saying agency officials have been in touch with both companies.

“What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law,” Mr. Comey said in a briefing with reporters, reports WSJ’s Brent Kendall.

Mr. Comey said he still wants to get a better handle on the implications of the technology, saying FBI officials have engaged in discussions with the companies “to understand what they’re thinking and why they think it makes sense.”

As WSJ earlier reported, officials in Washington have been expecting a confrontation with Silicon Valley in the wake of Apple’s announcement that its new operating system for phones would prevent law enforcement from retrieving data stored on a locked phone, such as photos, videos and contacts. Google has also said its next version of its Android mobile-operating system this fall would come with similar privacy protections.

This is where the mantra “if you’ve nothing to hide then you’ve nothing to fear” gets us.

And then there’s this from Down Under:

This week, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott used recent terrorist threats as the backdrop of a dire warning to Australians that “for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift. There may be more restrictions on some, so that there can be more protection for others.”

This pronouncement came as two of a series of three bills effecting that erosion of freedoms made their way through Australia’s Federal Parliament. These were the second reading of a National Security Amendment Bill which grants new surveillance powers to Australia’s spy agency, ASIO, and the first reading of a Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill that outlaws speech seen as “advocating terrorism”. A third bill on mandatory data retention is expected to be be introduced by the end of the year.

Whilst all three bills in this suite raise separate concerns, the most immediate concern—because the bill in question could be passed this week—is the National Security Amendment Bill. Introduced into Parliament on 16 July, it endured robust criticism during public hearings last month that led into an advisory report released last week. Nevertheless the bill was introduced into the Senate this Tuesday with the provisions of most concern still intact.

In simple terms, the bill allows law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant to access data from a computer—so far, so good. But it redefines “a computer” to mean not only “one or more computers” but also “one or more computer networks”. Since the Internet itself is nothing but a large network of computer networks, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that the bill may stealthily allow the spy agency to surveil the entire Internet with a single warrant.

Apart from allowing the surveillance of entire computer networks, the bill also allows “the addition, deletion or alteration of data” stored on a computer, provided only that this would not “materially interfere with, interrupt or obstruct a communication in transit or the lawful use by other persons of a computer unless … necessary to do one or more of the things specified in the warrant”. Given the broad definition of “computer”, this provision is broad enough to authorize website blocking or manipulation, and even the insertion of malware into networks targeted by the warrant.

Capping all this off, the bill also imposes a sentence of up to ten years imprisonment upon a person who “discloses information … [that] relates to a special intelligence operation”. Although obviously intended to throw the hammer at whistleblowers, the provision would apply equally to journalists. Such a provision could make it impossible for Australians to learn about the activities of their own government that infringe international human rights laws.

After Snowden…

September 25th, 2014 [link]

Watch more videos on

A few months ago I took part in a debate about the implications of the Snowden revelations with Chris Huhne, the former Lib-Dem Cabinet minister, and Sir David Omand, the former Director of GCHQ. Here’s the video of the session.

Death in the afternoon

September 25th, 2014 [link]

Death in the afternoon-blog

On reflection…

September 24th, 2014 [link]


Every little helps…

September 23rd, 2014 [link]

… As the Tesco slogan goes. Still, I don’t think that £250 million accounting ‘error’ will be regarded as a little. What the hoohah obscures, however, is what Tesco’s poor trading performance tells us about the so-called economic recovery. Tesco is in trouble because people are increasingly turning to the cut-price supermarkets (mainly Lidl and Aldi). Waitrose, meanwhile, is booming. Which, being translated, means that poorer people in Britain are feeling increasingly squeezed, while the upper middle classes who are Waitrose’s staple customers (just look at the car park the next time you visit one of their stores) are doing just fine. Some ‘recovery’.

The Federal United Kingdom

September 22nd, 2014 [link]

Timothy Garton-Ash has been writing in today’s Guardian about the need for a Federal Kingdom of Britain — FKB. “Incidentally”, he concludes,

I Googled to check whether “FKB” is already taken. It is: by the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a theatrical troupe of comic jugglers, sometimes attired in kilts. Seems like a pretty good description of Britain’s party leaders right now.

Broken politics, contd.

September 22nd, 2014 [link]

Just listening to Ed Balls, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, who is going to announce in a speech to the annual conference that a Labour government would reduce child benefit in order to demonstrate to the electorate that it was serious about “balancing the books”. The total saving over five years? Er, £400m.

And then I read this splendid rant by Owen Jones.

British politics, and much of Labour, has become a sport, a professional ladder to climb like any investment bank, even if the top salary only puts you in the top 3% of earners rather than the top 0.01%. You can always use a future ministerial position as a launchpad for a lucrative job at a private healthcare firm or defence giant anyway.

But this is why the Labour conference feels so unreal. Britain is an extraordinarily rich country. Here’s the proof. In the last five years of the most protracted economic crisis since the 19th century, the wealth of the richest 1,000 people has more than doubled. That surge in wealth – of about £261bn – is worth about two and a half times Britain’s annual deficit. Tot up their fortunes and you come up with the sum of £519bn, or about a third of Britain’s annual GDP. And yet in the sixth biggest economy on earth nearly 1 million people have been driven to food banks to feed themselves. The Red Cross has distributed food packages to British families for the first time since the second world war. Perhaps there is something about these facts that has failed to puncture our consciousness, so it is worth stating them succinctly. In Britain, in 2014, hundreds of thousands of people can no longer afford to feed themselves.

Only a sociopath would design such a society from scratch, and yet our political elite maintains and defends this grotesque order and portrays the dissenters as the real cranks and extremists.

The real takeaway from the referendum

September 21st, 2014 [link]

Armando Iannucci nails it.

The challenge, then, is to turn that Scottish no vote into something positive and enduring. For the other feeling I get as the debate dies down is that Scotland wanted this whole argument to mean something, irrespective of the result. A nation conversing with itself and about itself can be just as extraordinary as the decision it eventually makes. What Scotland has now bequeathed the UK is a fascinating demonstration of total political engagement in action.

The two numbers I take away from this week are not 55% or 45% but 84.5% and 16. 84.5% is the extraordinary turnout from Thursday, and 16 is the age from which those people could vote. That 84.5% mass movement could be the source of a greater political upset than all the discussions about constitutional conventions and decentralised government. Though it’s right that Westminster debates how its power should be properly wielded, 84.5% reminds us that this discussion now goes way beyond Westminster and back to the electorate it serves.

This is a public discussion about politics, not just one for constitutional experts. The yeses and the nos came out in force together, so it wasn’t just nationalism that demanded to be heard – it was almost an entire people. In the weeks leading up to the vote, TV cameras caught arguments between strangers on street corners locking horns over the Barnett formula and the decommissioning of Trident. Families spent breakfasts pulling apart the pitfalls and promises of devomax.

On both sides of the referendum, people were energised by an astonishing proposition: take everything you’re used to in politics and imagine you could put it to one side and start again. At that, the people did the talking and politicians were forced to listen.

And this:

It is no surprise that even though we’re one of the most stable societies in the world and one of its most uncorrupt, we feel massively disconnected from the discourse of those we elect. They speak differently, they gesture unlike anyone in real life, they move from politics degree to parliamentary membership in the time it takes to wire a plug. Their speech patterns, their unhesitating use of phrases such as “raft of initiatives” and “sustainability clusters” fails to penetrate human ears. Politicians have trapped themselves in their own speech bubble. The policies they formulate don’t feel like they’ve come from any ordinary discussion.

I think the moment I felt that politics went through a looking glass was in the 2005 general election campaign. Tony Blair, the defending prime minister, was asked if Labour was going to renew Britain’s nuclear deterrent and, more pressingly, why there was no clear answer to that question in his party manifesto. His answer was genius. “That’s not a question for now. That’s a question for the next parliament.”

Step back and parse for a second the verbal errors by which democracy as we know it is casually denied in that sentence. Democracy normally works like this: people tell you what they’d do if they were in power and you vote for the ones you agree with. Under the Blair doctrine, however, it seems you vote people into power first and then you might find out what they want to do at a later stage.

It’s no surprise that there is steadily building up a complete and utterly bamboozled look of awed incomprehension on the public’s collective face about what on earth politicians mean by what they’re saying.

They talk like the priests of an oriental church, in a Coptic language based on scripture we’re too uneducated to understand.

Of course it’s possible that the electorate will just shrink back into apathy. But, watching Cameron’s posturing on Friday morning, I wondered if this tired, broken, unsustainable way of doing politics can endure through a generational change.

Unfortunately, Ed Miliband doesn’t seem to see that here is a real opportunity for a radically different approach to politics. Nor does his party. Pity.

Tech bubble: does it matter?

September 21st, 2014 [link]

This morning’s Observer column.

If one wanted to be critical, the most annoying thing about the current bubble is the way the visions and ambitions of startup founders seem to have narrowed. Many of them claim, of course, that what they want to build is a company that in the long term will transform the world or disrupt a particular market. But in actual fact their strategy is to create a product or a service that is sufficiently interesting or annoying to induce Google, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo or Microsoft to buy the upstart venture. The poster child for this is WhatsApp, a fine company with a viable business model that did not depend on monitoring users and which was run by a chap who fervently declared his resolve to build a great, sustainable enterprise that treated its users well. And he doubtless believed that right up to the moment that Facebook offered him $19bn. And who can blame him: you only live once, after all.

At the end of the day, though, what’s much more worrying than the spectacle of venture capitalists blowing investors’ money is the fact that everywhere state funding for the kind of long-term, fundamental research that is needed to produce the technologies of tomorrow has been shrinking. The current wave of innovation and economic development enabled by the internet has only come about because 60 years ago the US government funded the project that produced first the arpanet and then the internet.

Private enterprise would undoubtedly have produced computer networks, but it would not have created the free and open platform for “permissionless innovation” that we got as a result of public investment. And we would have all been poorer as a result.

Read on

The Umbrella Man

September 19th, 2014 [link]

The Umbrella Man from The New York Times – Video on Vimeo.

Whenever I hear someone outline a beautifully-constructed conspiracy theory I think of Errol Morris’s video.