Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Which rights should we discard

As the Tories launch into their latest 'human rights are the root of all evil' fest, at their last annual conference before the next general election, I'd like to ask David Cameron and his party colleagues a question posed by the late Lord Bingham, relating to the rights laid out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union,
"Which of these rights, I ask, would we wish to discard? Are any of them trivial,
superfluous, unnecessary? Are any them un-British?"
Just to be clear which of -
  • Human dignity? (article 1)
  • Right to life? (article 2)
  • Right to the integrity of the person? (article 3)
  • Prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment? (article 4)
  • Prohibition of slavery and forced labour? (article 5)
  • Right to liberty and security? (article 6)
  • Respect for private and family life? (article 7)
  • Protection of personal data? (article 8)
  • Right to marry and right to found a family? (article 9)
  • Freedom of thought, conscience and religion? (article 10)
  • Freedom of expression and information? (article 11)
  • Freedom of assembly and of association? (article 12)
  • Freedom of the arts and sciences? (article 13)
  • Right to education? (article 14)
  • Freedom to choose an occupation and right to engage in work? (article 15)
  • Freedom to conduct a business? (article 16)
  • Right to property? (article 17)
  • Right to asylum? (article 18)
  • Protection in the event of removal, expulsion or extradition? (article 19)
  • Equality before the law? (article 20)
  • Non-discrimination? (article 21)
  • Cultural, religious and linguistic diversity? (article 22)
  • Equality between men and women? (article 23)
  • The rights of the child? (article 24)
  • The rights of the elderly? (article 25)
  • Integration of persons with disabilities? (article 26)
  • Solidarity (articles 27 to 38) 
  • Citizens rights (articles 39 to 46)
  • Right to an effective remedy and to a fair trial? (article 47)
  • Presumption of innocence and right of defence? (article 48)
  • Principles of legality and proportionality of criminal offences and penalties? (article 49)
  • Right not to be tried or punished twice in criminal proceedings for the same criminal offence? (article 50)
  • General provisions (articles 51 to 54)
- would the main party of government wish to discard? Are any of these rights trivial, superfluous, unnecessary? Are any them un-British?"

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ineffectiveness of airport naked scanners

I'm reminded of Austrian professor Werner Gruber's exposé on German TV (from 2010) of just how useless airport naked scanners are as a security measure. Prof Gruber, of the Institute for Experimental Physics in Vienna, manged to hide the components of an incendiary device from the scanner, then promptly went outside and demonstrated, in spectacular fashion, what the scanner had missed.

But be AMAZED be VERY AMAZED at how this WONDERFUL high tech FULL BODY SCANNER WILL PROTECT YOU - The machine did pick up his mobile phone and studio microphone.

Friday, September 26, 2014


The mindset of FBI director, James Comey, appears to be that of someone who believes the lives of all citizens should be on permanent display for government inspection and approval. Privacy, remember, is only for criminals. Apart from the fact that this won't be the first or last time that Apple or other commercial enterprise overstates the potential efficacy of its product features in any particular context, Mr Comey's belief that he has the right, nay, duty to berate the company for its modest implementation of privacy enhancing technology is not one I can share.

It's not a big logical leap for a society that normalises mass collection, processing, analysis and storage of communications (metadata and content, even if the distinction is no longer clear) to consider that those who would wish to opt out, or those that would help them do so, should be considered anomalous and suspicious.

It's not a big logical leap to say we'll collect all the information but don't worry it's only "seen" by the computer, not real people, so it's not real surveillance; and it will only be looked at for evidence of wrongdoing by bad guys... or those linked to bad guys... or those linked to those linked to bad guys...

It's not a big logical leap to say we're not collecting enough information.

Everything will be easier or better or more efficient if only we collect more.

Big data is the future of commerce and government.

We already have mass telephone and internet interception, let's install CCTV cameras in all homes. Oh yes, people already have webcams attached to their computers and we have already collected millions of users' Yahoo webcam images. But that's only in the rooms with computers and the cameras don't cover all corners of the rooms. And, after all, the footage will only be collected and "seen" by computers, not real people, so it's not real surveillance.

And we don't have to record the audio. At least at first. So we don't know what people are actually saying to each other. So it's only metadata. We know where they are and who they are talking to and for how long but not what they are actually saying to each other.  If we surreptitiously use lip reading programs that's only to detect serious criminality.  Ah, you know what, we have to protect people so it doesn't matter if we record the audio too. It will only be 'seen' by computers.

And if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about.

It's not a big logical leap to say, you know all that information in all those giant databases? We should be using it not just to catch terrorists but to catch
It's not a big logical leap to say we shouldn't just limit it to these serious criminals. We need to apply use of this information to illegal immigrants, benefit scroungers, criminal youths, burglars, petty criminals, drunkards, louts, vandals, offensive people, inner city sink estates with unruly families who may cause trouble, ethnic minority communities which may have a link to a religion extreme forms of which may be cited as an excuse for murder and mayhem, Romanians (if UKIP ever get a say), the poor, disabled or sick or elderly...

It's not a big logical leap to say we need to use this information to improve public services -
  • the NHS
  • education
  • social welfare
  • policing and criminal justice
  • intelligence
  • defence
  • foreign affairs
  • economy
So people with a HSCIC database determined genetic predisposition towards contracting certain kinds of cancers may be required to take out private health insurance just in case they become a disproportionate drain on the NHS. Or kids with mental health or special educational or social needs be excluded from good schools so they don't disrupt the normal kids.

Even the most dedicated of public servants, and I have the privilege to know a lot of them, heavily under-resourced and under relentless pressure for outcomes, from management or politicians of varying levels and competence, succumb, with the best of intentions, to the temptation of mission or function creep.

It not a big logical leap to convince ourselves it is ok to use data or facilities gathered or created for one purpose for an additional 'useful' or convenient or target facilitating purpose.

Dedicated people in all walks of life bend/break/ignore/re-interpret/renew the rules because everyone else is doing it, so it's not a big deal.

But this combination of the normalisation of mass surveillance, function creep and (sometimes) well intentioned rule making and rule breaking create the conditions for the poisonous snakes in suits of the world to thrive. And it only takes a handful of them in the wrong places to cause widespread misery and abuse of human rights.

The sad thing is we can and sometimes do design, build, operate and use communications systems, computers and big data in socially, economically and legally enlightened ways, in the public good, when we do so intelligently and ethically. But we're often failing to do so. The seductive attractions of convenience, instant gratification and the ease and power with which all personal data can be collected, processed and stored (the economic agents doing the collection can figure out how to exploit/use/monetize it later), beat intelligence, ethics and the public good, every time.

I was chatting with my elder teen late one evening this week about some of this. I expressed a concern that he and his kids would be asking me, in my dotage, what the hell I thought I was doing when we were building the communications infrastructure of a surveillance state. After all, all that is required for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing.

"Dad," says he, "I can guarantee that's one question I'll never have to ask you."

I'm wasn't sure whether to be flattered that he over-estimates the efficacy of my efforts in this landscape, sad that he may change his mind, concerned that I've burdened him with my worries or optimistic that he and his generation are smarter than me and mine; and they will put those smarts to good effect in building a more equitable and enlightened world.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The end of one recorder era

My Panasonic DMR EX75 HDD/DVD recorder has given up on the Freeview signal again. Checking the usual overheating 680 microfarad capacitor, I didn't find obvious signs of failure. It wasn't blowing it's top as the previous failures had done, for example -

But given the inexpert deposit of excess solder I left the last time it's possible the failure was internal or further under the board. I decided to attempt to replace the capacitor again anyway. Unfortunately two attempts to replace it failed, largely due to my incompetent soldering skills, I suspect.

Tinning the soldering iron tip proved unusually problematic this time. So I cleaned it with wire wool before the second attempt (and after it had cooled completely to room temperature). Note that you need to be really careful with this not to strip the iron surface bare or you'll find yourself in need of a new soldering iron.

As I said before, though, if you're thinking of tackling something like this, especially if you are an infrequent actor in such an arena, be sure to snip the legs of the failed capacitor quite high up on the first pass, so that you have a solid base to crimp the legs of the new capacitor to before soldering. My original failure to do this meant successive replacements over the years have been increasingly difficult to crimp/graft and solder.

I seem now to have reached the point of no return, at least as far as my rusty engineering repair skills are concerned.

I blame middle aged eye-sight and the need for reading glasses for close up work too. It's probably just as well I don't have to build flight simulation rigs any more, though I'm pretty sure I could still do the mathematics, the modelling, the design and the testing the parts of aircraft to destruction bit - operating the rigs and running the tests was never as tricky as constructing them.

Well the saga of the Panasonic DMR EX75 HDD/DVD recorder draws to a close. In any case, the machine won't now pick up the Freeview signal and though I can play what was recorded up to losing the signal, I can't record anything else. The old box of electronics is going to have to be retired. It's taken in
I hope the next recorder finding it's way into the B2fxxx household has a long but less eventful existence.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Virgin Media connection issues

Well, our Virgin Media broadband connection was down again yesterday.  It had apparently been playing up all morning but their was significant angst in the Corrigan household when I got back from my cycle circuit about 10.30am. Connectivity had been erratic but now there was no connecting to anything despite the lights on the hub suggesting it was getting a signal. And despite multiple modem re-boots.

So I phoned the local principle Virgin Media engineer, Jacob, who had asked me to call him as and when we experienced connection problems.  On speaking to him, I immediately felt guilty because it turns out it was his day off. He nevertheless volunteered to go into the office and check the signal from their end. Virgin Media management should take note - that was above and beyond the call of duty - it's committed people who care that make the difference between lousy base standard and decent service.

A little later Jacob called from the office and said he was on the system and noted the network was effectively unusable in the area. Though a signal was just about reaching my modem it wasn't going to be any good for anything and it was the same across the district. So he had called the chief network engineer, Mark, into the picture and was asking that he do what he can to fix the problem.

The connection was down all day but thankfully is back this morning. When I checked the automated recording service fault line later in the evening, the official line was that customers with Ntlworld email accounts were experiencing problems but engineers were working to sort out the issue as soon as they could.

The Corrigan clann are back in the land of the internet for now. I'm not sure for how long this time. But thank you to the front end Virgin Media techies who did eventually get to the bottom of and rectify the network failings and kudos especially to Jacob for going that extra mile and more on your day off.

Update: 12.15pm on day we got connection back.  Connectivity down to a crawl again. Annoyed!
Update 2: 1.30pm on day we got connection back. Connectivity seemingly ok again. Wireless connectivity usable but erratic in the evening.
Update 3: Monday am and early afternoon - connection down/dodgy.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Jennifer Lawrence and the right to be forgotten

Privacy is back in the news because some celebrities, such as the talented Jennifer Lawrence, have had compromising photographs leaked and the police have been accessing a journalist's phone records.

Can the latest scandals throw any light on the mislabeled and erroneously reported Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) Google "right to be forgotten" decision?

Well perhaps, at least in the case of the leaked photos. Some of our US cousins, for example, find it hard to understand the ruling and consider it fundamentally incompatible with US First Amendment guarantees for freedom of expression.What the hell do those regressive Europeans think they are doing?

These same horror-stricken people, however, do see that a movie star, who has embarrassing photographs copied or stolen and leaked around the world, should have some means of redress, recovering those photos and/or suppressing their distribution. Likewise the victims of revenge porn or blackmail as in AMP v persons unknown.

It's not the same, but did Mario Costeja González have the right to redress in relation to Google's prominent display in search results of a link to a news article about historical financial difficulties?

Lilian Edwards did a terrific job explaining that EU law requires that yes he should, in the process nailing some of the key myths circulating about the decision.

Having been completely neglectful in not yet analysing the case here, I've been prompted to some brief thoughts by the latest round of stories. Disclaimer: This doesn't constitute a proper analysis (for which, sadly, I have little time at the moment). In any case...

Firstly, everybody makes mistakes and suffers embarrassment.

Fear of same actually constrains some people so much they neglect to do or say anything that in any way might rebound on them or be used as a metaphoric stick to beat them with by the communities within which they exist. This can be incredibly debilitating.

Historically, however, society has enabled "recovery" from mistakes or embarrassment through collective fading and displacement of memories of those events.

We have now, though, spent the best part of the last 30 years enabling, actively and/or passively, the building and operation of a communications mass surveillance infrastructure and 'permanent' digital memory store, unparalleled in the history of the human race. We've been happy to revel in the benefits of these technologies as have governments and large economic actors like Google. But as John Naughton so eloquently puts it, our " indolence is a shocking case study of what complacent ignorance can do to a democracy, and we are now living with the consequences of it."

We are, nevertheless, where we are and it presents us with a complex mess to sort out.  So on the Google case specifically, it's worth at least asking a few questions.

Supposing Google or other economic agents or governments prominently and permanently tags/connects a past mistake or embarrassment to a person's name, so that we cannot "recover" through fading or displacement of collective memory. Supposing also that these agents prominently flag these mistakes through headline search results that, in our world of short attention spans, means we can never escape them. Let's face it we are a society quick to condemn on the basis of flimsy, minimal or non-existent evidence and occasionally don't even bother to click on the link, merely judge by the headline...

Is this a problem?
  1. for the individual?
  2. for the individual's family, friends, community?
  3. for society generally?
  4. for Google and other economic agents as collectors, processors and controllers of the personal data at issue?
  5. for government and the courts?
I'd answer 'yes' to each of these to a variety of degrees for a variety of reasons. If you answer yes to any of them we have a significant mess that requires sorting out. The part of that mess the CJEU attempted to target in the very narrowly tailored Google Spain v González decision was, on balance,  a tiny step in the right direction.

Even Google have got over their original hissy fit over the decision and are getting on with it. They've stopped 'loudly' indicating results were being censored and anyone wanting to see them could click on a convenient link, provided on the search results page to the US version of Google.

The decision itself requires only the link from the name of the person formally requesting a takedown to the page that name appears in be removed. The webpage with the information about the individual's past remains in place. Someone with semi coherent search skills can still easily find it. Lazy name searches, for those subjects who successfully request it, just don't now lead directly to the equivalent of a digital loudhailer proclaiming the individual, like everyone, has some mistakes in their past that society should accept are spent.

The ruling does not constitute a general 'right to be forgotten' which might itself present all kinds of challenges. The one major problem with it is that it delegates a public interest and fundamental rights decision to a private economic actor, Google in this instance, that should probably sit within the remit of a court, tribunal or at least some other quasi-judicial public authority.

And finally, for the 1st Amendment absolutists, how free to speak is the sensitive man/woman/child terrified that any misspoken comment, mistake or embarrassing situation will be blown up and held against them for the rest of their natural lives? This, given our out of control mass surveillance society, is a 1st amendment issue too, just not necessarily in the way you suppose.

Update: John Naughton's exposé of the ugly side of human nature "celebgate" reveals is essential reading.