How to set up a free Linux server on Amazon EC2

I bet you didn’t know that Amazon sell computing time. Well they do. After having to build massive data centres full of web servers to handle the largest book store website in the world, they discovered that they had to have lots of extra computers standing by just to handle Christmas and the new year shopping rush. The logical conclusion? Rent out space on those servers to other people when Amazon don’t need them. That has now expanded massively and Amazon are one of the biggest resellers of virtual private servers. (VPS) A VPS is basically a complete computer contained within another computer. The physical computers can pretend to be many smaller virtual computers, which the customer can have complete control of without affecting anyone else.

The most intriguing part is that Amazon bill for these services in tiny increments, so that if you like, you could rent a massive server with 13 processors and 23GB of memory, but just for ten minutes. Indeed, you can rent an entire supercomputer for a day. The service is called the Elastic Compute Cloud, or EC2 for short. You can also rent a tiny little server with 1 processor and 613MB of RAM. In fact, at the moment, you can have that server completely free for a year! You will only pay if you use extra disk space or more than 15GB of data transfer. The service is really aimed at web servers, but it can also be used to run a game server, and I will show you how. Using Amazon EC2 is quite complex and not for the non technical, but hopefully this guide will get you running.

I will write another article later and tell you how to set up a Source (SRCDS) server for games from Valve such as Team Fortress 2 (TF2) and Half Life 2:Deathmatch. (HL2:DM, HL2MP) For now, here is how to get started with a free Linux server on Amazon EC2.  Continue reading “How to set up a free Linux server on Amazon EC2”

Guest post from @apricotmuffins: On Health

This is a guest post from my sister, who you can find as @apricotmuffins on twitter.

I’m healthy.

I’m not bragging, I’m stating a fact. My body works pretty well for me, and through no fault of my own. Sure, there’s some issues here and there, I have slightly dodgy knees, but nothing I can’t cope with. I get a knotty back, I prefer to avoid bread because I get awful heartburn on occasion. I have a disgracefully irregular period, but that’s about the height of my health worries. All of those things are small fry, they don’t affect my ability to function on a day to day basis. They don’t make me stop and think seriously about whether or not I can do something. I can push myself, and like a rubber band I’ll spring back quickly with little consequence. I’m sure a few of you reading are the same. Your body does not give you too much trouble in your daily life and you are able to put any health problems you might suffer in the background for the most part.

Not many people, I think, realise how lucky they are to be healthy. To not have to worry about how much they can do, how far they can push themselves and what the consequences of doing so will be. To not have to plan and prepare every single detail of their life, to be mindful of places they can’t access, things they can’t eat, activities they are incapable of.

I can have a dodgy sleeping pattern and all it really does is make me a little more tired the next day. I can sit in a crap computer chair for hours and all I suffer is a sore bum and a need to stretch. I can push myself to run and exercise and use my body, and feel the air rushing through my lungs painlessly and easily, to feel the thrill of my heart racing and my blood pumping. I can dream, and think, and muse, without my nightmares or my sadness encroaching on my mind to a point of debilitation.

Know this: at any moment, of any day, you can have your health snatched from you. That thing, that allows you to function without worry, it can be gone in an instant. You might see it coming, a slow descent into health problems which build up to a point of true disability, or a quick accident, a breaking point in which your whole life turns on its head. You will not always be so fortunate as to not suffer long term or even permanent health issues. Age will get us all eventually, but along the way there are many opportunities for things to go wrong.

We, who are healthy, are extremely privileged. Call it a gift, if you like, call it chance if you don’t, but don’t ever think you’ve earned it. Ever. Even people who work to maintain their health start off in a position of being able to do so, many people never even had that. Many people will never be able to ‘pull’ themselves out of bad health because it simply is not an option. It’s a rare and fragile thing, to recover fully from a major health issue. It takes many doctors and experts and help from outside, and even then people might never go beyond simply working around things rather than through them.

Please, I beg you, don’t take your health for granted. I have been doing so for years, riding on the fact that I’m young and fortunate. Its taken seeing the deep suffering of my loved ones for me to realise I will not always have this blessing. To realise that I’ve been squandering it, abusing it, relying on it to shore me up as though its a strong and definite thing, when its anything but.

Please, do those things you keep meaning to do but never get round to. Take up that sport, go for that walk, sing, dance, be creative and fearless. Use yourself and the greatest tool you have to enjoy life. Because when you lose that tool, you’ll realise what a gift it really was.

Email sent to my MP over housing benefit chaos

I sent this email to my MP to request help with our chaotic benefits situation. I thought I would put it here as it may be interesting to some of you.

To: Peter Luff MP
CC: South Worcestershire Revenue and Benefits Shared Services

Dear Mr Luff.

I am writing regarding our situation with Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit. Our reference number for this is xxxxxxxxxxxxx
We have repeatedly requested that our benefit paid since the last tax year be re-assessed in full. This is because of reasons set out below. Most recently, we have been sent a letter (dated the 15th of March 2011) which stated “As your household has had many changes to your income over the last twelve months resources do not allow for further analysis of each period to be made.” This is absurd, as we requested this analysis precisely because our income has had so many changes, and we are certain that mistakes have been made. This same letter included copies of all our award letters for the past year, a bundle half an inch thick, with the implication that we should work it for out ourselves. This despite us having no information as to how to calculate these benefits.

Over the past year my wife, xxxxx xxxxxxx, has had a mixture of Job Seekers Allowance and temporary work from several different job agencies. Rather than stay on JSA she has continually made the effort to take work whenever possible, and since little teaching work has been available much of what she has done has been cooking and cleaning work. She has followed all the rules, and all work done has been reported to the Job Centre and to the Council Hub, and payslips have been copied to both continuously over the past year.

As a result, our housing benefit, council tax benefit and job seekers allowance have varied wildly. There has been confusion on many occasions due to her having multiple employers and we have even had benefits stopped while they await P45 forms that don’t exist because she has not actually left any agencies to work for another. We have been over paid and had it clawed back, underpaid with no apology for the times when we have missed our rent as a result.

I myself have had no income because I have been running a startup company which has not yet paid wages, and since Christmas I have been seriously ill and confined to my bed after an M.E. relapse. I am claiming ESA for this.

We are being taken to court on the 13th of April for the non-payment of council tax which I believe should have been covered by council tax benefit since in the period covered my wife had hardly any work and I was sick. This impending court case is causing a lot of stress for me and is having an impact on my recovery.

We have tried to play by the rules, take work whenever possible (I even started my own business as M.E. makes me otherwise unemployable) and report all income, but we are being penalised for it. It would have been easier for both of us to stay on Job Seekers Allowance and have a nice stable income with no shocks.

We would be grateful for any help you could give in getting our income and benefit payments for the last year properly assessed using all the available information. I would also like to thank you for intervening when my wifes CRB check was delayed for several months, as without this she would have had no teaching work at all.

Thank you for your time.

I’m sorry, I forgot.

I’m sorry, I forgot. People that are sick or disabled are supposed to stay miserable as a punishment for being ill. They aren’t allowed any books, games, music, TV, trips or holidays because that might cost the taxpayer money. They must lie in bed staring at the ceiling for the rest of their lives.

Or not.

Someone found my blog today by searching for “should i feel guilty by going to the shops while i am receiving dla”. Someone that I went to school with made a snide comment on Facebook this morning about people who go on holiday while unfit to work.

What is wrong with people? Should illness or disability mean enforced misery as payment for being kept by the state? Is it forbidden for a sick person to stagger to a nearby restaurant or pub if they are having a good day? If they find a bit of extra energy are they not allowed to do the shopping themselves instead of dumping yet another task on their spouse as usually happens?

This attitude, pushed by the tabloids and now by conservative government ministers, is outrageous. Becoming ill cannot mean a complete loss of quality of life, or you might as well just shoot us all now. The welfare system is for everyone whether they have paid tax in the past or not. And most of us have paid tax in the past. Those that haven’t have family that have. What right have the government or society got to renage on the deal? The deal is, we all pay into the system, and when someone has need, the system looks after them. Including leisure pursuits.

Our society disgusts me. People are vilified for simply being sick or disabled. People shout abuse in the street at those using walking sticks or wheelchairs. Those with disabilities don’t dare to push themselves at all, even if their condition varies. Many people are capable of riding a motorbike or mowing the lawn one day but cannot move the next, but if they dare to try anything then they live in fear of a neighbour telling the DWP. (Who don’t understand variable conditions at all.)

All this for a measly 0.5% that are actually faking it. Are you part of the problem? Are you making sick people stressed and setting back their recovery? Are you hurting 99.5% of the sick and disabled because of you unfair prejudice and your sense of entitlement?

Oh, and by the way, DLA is paid to anyone that needs the help, working or not. Of course you shouldn’t feel guilty about going to the shops.

You have zero privacy anyway, get over it

“You have zero privacy anyway, get over it”

Those words were uttered by Scott Mcnealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, in 1999. It made a big storm at the time in computing circles and left a lot of people outraged. This pre-dated Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, even Friends Reunited and so the age of sharing every intimate detail had not yet arrived but there were signs; in 1997 I and many of my friends at university had personal web sites on which we did share information. In fact, I had my CV available on my web site which I wouldn’t dream of doing now.

In reality, in 1999 privacy was an issue that was both important and not important to me. I was paranoid about my personal email and telephone calls being snooped on and I used PGP to encrypt my email. On the other hand, I happily gave out my name, address, email address, age, girlfriends name, my course at university and more on my university web page and my Tripod web page. Now days I am much more careful with my information and if it is online at all I try to restrict its visibility to just a few people but back then it wasn’t important to me.

I think there are two reasons for that. One reason is simply that web pages were new and exciting technology, and we all got carried away. The other is that individual web pages did not carry the same big-brother overtones that social networks do. When the data is held in one central searchable database it seems very different to many separate web sites. Back in 1999 we barely even had effective search engines, with Google being less than two years old, and so most people looking at a personal web site would be friends, family or colleagues. I first started to lock down my information when I realised that it could have a negative impact in the future. Future employers could easily search the internet for a name and refuse someone a job based on what they see.

With Facebook and other social networks, we are encouraged to share all sorts of personal information. Many people share their complete education history, work history, relationship status, religious beliefs, hobbies, favourite music, film and books, birthday, who they are friends with, status updates and photographs. All this information used to be exposed by default on Facebook, but if you sign up now it will at least mark these things for viewing by friends only. Even so, many teenagers have this information available to everyone and are not even aware that it could be any other way or why they might want that.

Search engines are a huge problem for privacy. Type a persons name into Google, and the chances are that you will find their social networking accounts and their photograph. You will also see personal directories such as 123people.co.uk which gather a worrying amount of information from social networks, the electoral roll, public records and so on. These directories and search engines make it very difficult to hide yourself from searches.

Another aspect of privacy is tracking. People have been worried for years about being tracked by advertising networks such as Doubleclick. (Now owned by Google.) A lot of people delete browser cookies on a regular basis to prevent this tracking. It is also possible to opt out of this tracking. More recently many websites have started to select adverts to show the viewer based not only on the tracking information but also on data from websites viewed. For example, last year I searched the Halfords website for toolboxes of a certain type. For about a week afterwards I saw adverts for toolboxes of the type I had been interested in shown to me on many web sites.  (I normally block adverts, but I couldn’t at that time.) I could see this being very damaging if it showed adverts for something you wished to keep secret while someone else could see the screen.

In 2008 a company called Phorm tried to go even further. Instead of tracking you only through web sites displaying their adverts, they installed equipment at the heart of the BT network which would look at every web site visited and search made. They would then show adverts on selected websites and those adverts would be selected based on all of your web surfing! Needless to say there was an outcry and even questions by MPs.

Unfortunately the most intrusive tracking is now being entered into voluntarily. The Facebook account seems to have become the universal way to identify someone and lots of websites allow you to sign up or log in through Facebook Connect. The “Like” button has become ubiquitous as sites encourage you to share them with your friends. All of this means that Facebook has a vast knowledge of all the websites that you visit that use these things. This has even extended to a tie-up between Facebook and NHS Choices. The only way around that is to log out of Facebook and delete your browser cookies before visiting any other sites.

Facebook Comments, which allow comments to be left on blogs through your facebook account, are particularly intrusive because they link together your web browsing and your social network. If you enter a comment on a website using this system it will be shared back to Facebook and posted on your wall if you are not careful. That can tell everyone on your friends list what web site you were commenting on and what you said. That may be alright on many occasions, but perhaps more than you want to share on others. The rise of Facebook Comments also means that everyone must use their real name on these web sites. That has led many to ask if it is the death of anonymity. I would imagine that websites discussing sensitive issues are unlikely to use Facebook Comments for this reason. Even Disqus comments, a system which I use on this blog, can allow other people to track your comments from one blog to another. It does at least allow anonymous commenting in most cases.

Etsy and Google Buzz show a typical corporate cavalier attitude to private personal data. When Google introduced Buzz they simply added it to every Google Mail account, and made the personal address books of every user available through Buzz as a contact list. This “on by default” attitude caused a lot of bad press for Google and they quickly changed it to require activation by the user.  More recently Etsy has done the same thing. People that signed up to buy and sell “all things handmade, vintage and supplies” suddenly found their accounts visible to all through Etsy’s new People Search. Feedback that they had left on purchases or on buyers suddenly exposed details of items purchased, and these details show up on search engines too. One woman has had some particularly embarrassing information exposed on Google right next to her CV. All this because the owner of Etsy would like it to become a social network.

The trend is towards sharing more and more information on the internet. I think Scot McNealy was right, although a few years ahead of his time. For all our efforts, privacy is dead, and voluntarily at that. I don’t actually see how it can go any other way though – recent events have shown that information cannot be kept secret any more. Fred Goodwin’s super-injunction could not prevent people from announcing that he was a banker. Dictators in the middle east were unable to prevent pictures and news reports from making it to our TV screens.

I believe this marks a cultural shift in attitude to privacy. In the last ten years people have started to live their lives in a much more open way and to share information and events on the internet in a myriad of ways. In a world where it is commonplace to show photographs of a drunken night out to everyone, or to discuss a relationship break up in public, attitudes to past actions must change. Employers searching out potential employees through Google are going to have to realise that everyone is human and no one is perfect. If they don’t see anything about a candidate to put them off, it probably means that the evidence has been hidden well! As a friend said recently, “These are the first generations to publish their entire lives in the public domain. Future leaders will doubtless hold juvenile views that they later discard and regret.” The public will have to realise that things done in the past do not accurately reflect the views of a politician in the present. If a persons entire past can be seen on the internet, people will have to be a lot more accepting.

It’s a brave new world.

Correcting the myths about Fukushima

Updated 16/03/2011 09:30 GMT

There has been an astonishing warning from TEPCO that “The possibility of re-criticality is not zero.” This can only mean that they have put so much fuel in the storage pool that it could start a nuclear reaction outside the reactor. This would not explode, but could cause the fuel rods to release radioactive particles outside of containment. This would spread radiation throughout the area.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12762608

— Original article —

There is a lot of misinformation and fear being spread about the nuclear reactors at Fukushima. I would like to present the correct information here.

  • All the explosions have been of hydrogen, and outside the reactor. The visible damage is the metal outer shed. It is unknown but thought unlikely that the reactors themselves have been breached. Talk of a “nuclear explosion” by the press is highly misleading.
  • Most of the radioactive particles in the steam vented from the reactors have very short half lives and will decay to nothing after a few seconds. A tiny amount of more harmful materials may have been released.
  • The highest level of radiation recorded near a reactor, 400 millisieverts-per-hour, is less than half that required to cause nausea and vomiting and less than an eighth of a possibly lethal dose, (3.5 sieverts) and that was right next to the reactor. At the site entrance it was only 8 millisieverts.
  • The largest release of radiation so far and the main risk of more has come from spent fuel rods in the storage pond next to reactor 4. These have caught fire twice in the last 24 hours. Fuel must be kept in cooling storage ponds for several years after being removed from the reactor. Al Jazeera has more information.
  • Spent fuel rods in storage ponds will not meltdown, but radioactive particles may be released if they are not kept under water, and especially if they catch fire.
  • There is a danger of more highly radioactive particles leaking from fuel if any reactor containments are breached. So far none have been since explosions have been outside the containment.
  • If any reactor cores do reach a state of meltdown, that means that the fuel will become a molten pool of metal on the floor of the reactor. The containment is designed to keep this in and prevent a leak. It will eventually cool down and be removed.
  • All of the reactors at Fukushima Dai-ni are in a state of cold shutdown.
  • Reactors 4,5 and 6 at Fukushima Daiichi were already shut down for inspection at the time of the earthquake.
  • A hoax is circulating which informs people that radiation has spread to other parts of Asia. This is not yet the case. More info at the BBC.

The situation is serious, radiation has been leaked, and that is not good, however the people have been evacuated and issued with iodine tablets (Potassium iodide prevents radioactive iodine from lodging in the thyroid) and the radioactive particles should decay and dissipate quickly. The worst thing that could happen now is a breach of the containment, in which case the area could become irradiated and uninhabitable. This is unlikely to happen.

Disclaimer: I have not had time to provide references for any of this. I suggest that you read reliable sources on the subject, such as the IAEA and NOT a news agency. (Especially not Fox.)

For up to date information, please see the International Atomic Engergy Agency. The IAEA website is at www.iaea.org however it is under heavy load so they are publishing all information on Facebook at www.facebook.com/iaeaorg

You can also view press releases from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPC) at  www.tepco.co.jp/en/press/corp-com/release/index-e.html however their website is also under heavy load and may not respond.

Note: The reactors at Fukushima are 40 years old and of very poor design compared to modern ones. New reactors can shutdown and cool themselves without power or human intervention. Germany and the USA were about to replace 40 year old reactors with modern designs but have suspended this in reaction to events in Japan. This means that 40 year old designs will be kept in operation.

In defence of nuclear power

Schematic of a Boiling Water Reactor
A Boiling Water Reactor. Image from Wikipedia.

When I was ten I remember being given some sort of exercise at school that required me to draw my answer. I drew a nuclear reactor. I drew it in some detail, including fuel rods and control rods and cooling system. This wasn’t actually unusual for me; I frequently drew machinery of many kinds, huge cogs and mechanisms and bizarre perpetual motion machines. Imagine my astonishment when the first thing my teacher said on seeing my drawing was “So you’re in favour of nuclear power then?”

I was astounded. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone could be against nuclear power. It was a machine! It was THE ultimate machine! How could anyone not love it?

Twenty two years later I am still in favour of nuclear power, although this time for much more considered reasons.

Perception of danger

Nuclear power is much safer than you might think. Think of the safety of nuclear power as something like an aircraft. Cars have frequent accidents, killing quite a lot, injuring more often. Aircraft few accidents, but when they go wrong, they really go wrong and generally kill everyone on board. A car accident might make the local news if there’s something odd about it. An aircraft accident will probably make the international news. Despite the differing attention given between these two, road accidents kill and maim many more people than air accidents do. The safety record of electricity generation is much the same. Fossil fuelled power stations might have accidents, but generally they are of little consequence. Even so, fossil fuel waste causes a lot of damage to the surrounding area and people living nearby. Nuclear power stations have very few accidents, but when they do, they have really serious ones.

People imagine an accident in a nuclear reactor as something like a bomb. Say “nuclear accident” and they see mushroom clouds and flattened cities but it isn’t like that. A nuclear bomb makes use of a runaway chain reaction which requires the uranium to be dense enough and large enough to reach “critical mass.” Nuclear reactors have their fuel split up into smaller parts encased in fuel rods which are held too far apart for a nuclear explosion to occur. What can actually happen is a meltdown, where the fuel rods melt, run together into a pool at the bottom of the reactor, then burn down through the floor and leak radiation. This can happen when the fuel is not kept cool enough. In most reactor designs there are three levels of containment around the core, and molten fuel will be contained by a very thick concrete basin under the reactor and prevented from leaking.

Apart from meltdown, a reactor that uses water as coolant can also produce hydrogen when things go wrong, and evaporating coolant can cause a build up of pressure inside the reactor. If the coolant stops circulating, the heat of the reactor can crack the water into hydrogen and oxygen and fill the containment up with this explosive mixture. In old (or Russian) reactors it could explode inside the containment and break it open. In more recent designs, the hydrogen is vented from the core before it can explode and expose the fuel to the outside world. The vented gasses are themselves radioactive, but usually not very much and not for very long since the radioactive particles have a half-life measured in minutes. (That is, they break down very quickly.) A big flaw with old reactor designs such as those at Fukushima and all Russian reactors is that the coolant will stop circulating if the pumps lose power. Modern reactors are designed in such a way that if the power stops, the coolant will keep circulating through convection.

In summary, modern nuclear reactors are much safer than those from the 1970s. They have multiple level of containment to catch molten fuel. Coolant can keep circulating even without power. High pressure and explosive gasses are removed from the core before they can explode and destroy it. Instead of setting a reaction going and then restraining it, modern designs require human intervention to keep them going. If the people aren’t there, the reactor shuts down. The rules on dealing with accidents are incredibly strict, almost paranoid. Finally, there are many more advanced designs of reactor to choose from than just pressurised water reactors or boiling water reactors. Pebble Bed Reactors, in particular, are designed so that they produce less power as the temperature rises, and so are self-limiting and cannot overheat.

Dealing with waste

Radiation Warning SymbolI will admit, dealing with nuclear waste is a problem. I would like to make some points about this. First of all, fossil fuels also produce waste. That waste in the form of ash, CO2, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and other gasses has traditionally been pumped into the atmosphere where it causes acid rain, smog and climate change. Pollution from fossil fuels affects the workers at the power station and the residents in towns nearby. Recent attempts to scrub pollutants out of smoke before releasing it have reduced this a little, but not enough. Carbon capture will improve things but is very difficult and hugely expensive. Secondly, fly ash from coal is actually radioactive! Not just radioactive, but during day-to-day operation a coal power station releases 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power station producing the same amount of electricity. People living near coal-fired power stations actually have more radioactivity in their bodies than people living near nuclear power stations.

Nuclear waste is usually buried deep underground. It will remain dangerous for millions of years. I think though, that I would much rather have waste that can be buried than pump smoke and ash into the atmosphere and destroy the planet.

We could actually produce far less nuclear waste than we do at the moment. Used nuclear fuel can be re-processed, and can be re-used to fuel Breeder Reactors. These reactors produce more fuel as they use traditional fuel and so they produce a lot more energy from the same fuel, and the waste is more effectively used up. They can also run on thorium, which is more readily available than uranium. Unfortunately Breeder Reactors are generally not used because they create plutonium and governments are terrified that it would be used to create nuclear weapons.

Thank you for reading this far. In my next post I will explain why I believe that nuclear power is neccessary and why renewable sources are not adequate. Please also note that I am not a nuclear physicist, I am a computer scientist that happens to be fascinated by nuclear power. If I am wrong and you can provide evidence, feel free to say so in the comments.

More information

People on benefits? They’re all scroungers aren’t they?

This article was written for The Broken of Britain.

In spite of all that I have written on my blog about wanting to work, about my efforts to keep working even as my body fails on me, about how my wife (a qualified science teacher) is doing cleaning work that pays less than Job Seekers Allowance and creates havoc with our other benefit claims, I often receive criticism for my views. People think that because I fight against benefit cuts, I support lazy people that simply want handouts and expect a free ride from the state. That could not be further from the truth.

I can’t deny that there are lazy people out there. While visiting the job centre in the past I have talked to people that see having to sign on as the height of inconvenience, that complain about the job searches they are asked to do. And quite honestly, with the attitudes I have seen, I wouldn’t employ some of them either. But they’re a minority. Living on benefits is hell. There is never enough money. You never know when someone might decide that you have been overpaid and start clawing the money back. For Job Seekers Allowance, you have to sign on every fortnight, attend meetings seemingly at random, and take training courses that you could teach. You can be “fined” for being five minutes late to an appointment. You are only allowed to miss an appointment through sickness twice in your whole claim. For sickness benefits it isn’t any better. While on incapacity benefit in previous years I had to attend regular meetings to discuss the possibility of me finding any work at all that I could do with such poor health. Those meetings and travelling to them made me ill for a week each time. The whole system could have been designed with the express intention of utterly destroying your soul. Most people hate claiming benefits, and most people would actually like a standard of living that is not attainable on the meagre amounts that benefits pay.

The infamous “families with 3 generations unemployed” do exist. Perhaps that does affect the attitude and desire to work in the youngest, I couldn’t say. But there is a reason that these people are unemployed. There are no jobs! There are approximately 2.5 million unemployed, and an estimated 0.5 million jobs, most of which are only part time. However you look at it, 2 million people will not find work. Some may argue that they should take responsibility and start their own business, however most people simply don’t have it in them to come up with a business idea, or have the knowledge and perseverance to run their own business.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

The Department of Work and Pensions keeps official statistics on levels of benefit fraud. Here are the figures showing the total amount of expenditure on benefits that is fraudulently claimed.

  • Income support fraud: 2.8%
  • Job Seekers Allowance fraud: 2.5%
  • Housing Benefit fraud: 1.3%
  • Incapacity benefit fraud: 0.5%
  • Disability Living Allowance fraud: 0.5%

Total benefit fraud is estimated to be 0.7%. Total error by claimants is also 0.7%. And error by officials? Another 0.7%. So administration error costs the same as fraud. That’s not to mention the 0.3% error causing underpayments, or the 0.9% (£60 million) that administration errors deprive incapacity claimants of.

Ultimately, the vilification by the tabloids of everyone on benefits and everyone who is sick and disabled is incredibly harmful. Public opinion is shaped by the lies and the twisted numbers put out by the tabloids which cause the public to back the government in cracking down on benefit fraud and in ruthlessly cutting benefits. In the end that causes great hurt and anguish for the vast majority of people that genuinely need the help.

UK Uncut triumph over the Vodafone website… but lose my support

Earlier today UK Uncut posted their own updates on several blogs belonging to Vodafone. Here’s there press release. I’ve posted screenshots of their twitter stream and their screenshots of the affected websites below.

Haha preparing this e-mischief is fun. We're about 30 minutes away. Stay tuned!We're about to do a little Internet takeover. 12.00. Pass it on.We just hijacked dozens of blogs on Vodafone's flagship CSR site to highlight cuts to charity fundingThe passwords were leaked to us by a lovely World of Difference 'winner' who is angry about Vodafone's £6bn tax dodge

Vodafone blog screenshotVodafone blog screenshot 2

The text of the hijacked website read:

For the last five months, people all over the country have occupied Vodafone’s high street stores in outrage at the company’s £6bn tax dodge.

Today, UK Uncut have occupied this website.

We demand that the government force Vodafone to pay the £6bn in tax it owes the public, in order to prevent the cuts to charities and essential public services.

World of Difference is Vodafone’s flagship Corporate Social Responsibility initiative, designed to project the image of a company that cares about the society it is part of. But Vodafone’s charitable giving pales into insignificance next to their massive tax dodge.

Charities across the country are having funding slashed by up to £5bn by a government that claims there is no alternative the cuts. But Vodafone’s unpaid tax bill on its own could cover every single cut to every single charity.

The cuts are not fair, and there are alternatives, like making corporate tax dodgers pay. Until the government stops these cuts, people will continue to fight.

See you on the high streets.

 

I personally think that this may constitute unauthorised access to a computer system and modification of data. Both are illegal under the Computer Misuse Act 1990. If true, this could earn up to five years in prison.

 

Relevant parts of the Computer Misuse Act

Section 1

A person is guilty of an offence under this section if:

  • he causes a computer to perform any function with intent to secure access to any program or data held in any computer
  • the access he intends to secure is unauthorised; and
  • he knows at the time when he causes the computer to perform the function that that is the case.

Section 3

A person is guilty of an offence under this section if:

  • he does any act which causes an unauthorised modification of the contents of any computer; and
  • at the time when he does the act he has the requisite intent and the requisite knowledge.

Although the password was given to the activists by the authorised user, it was not authorised by the owners of the blog, Vodafone. I personally am not happy with this step. I do not believe that it was necessary to introduce activities that may be a criminal offence at this stage since public opinion appears to be in favour of the UK Uncut message.

DWP shares disability data but who said they could?

The area I live in is switching off the analogue TV transmitters in September, and going all digital. The Switchover Help Scheme was set up to make sure that everyone with a TV is able to receive the digital signal, and they have been running TV adverts and posting out letters with this aim. The letters offer to sell a digital receiver and an aerial for £40, and also nag the recipient to reply to confirm whether they wish to do this or not. I have a problem with the letters that I received. Here’s the bottom part of the most recent one:

“We, DSHS Limited, are the data controller for this scheme. So that we know whether you qualify for help, we have received data from a number of public bodies including local authorities, the Veterans Agency and the Department for Work & Pensions, which may, if relevant, include whether you received any disability benefits or if you were registered as blind. We have also contacted TV Licensing to see whether there was a valid TV Licence at your address.

The Switchover Help Scheme is managed, on behalf of DSHS Limited, by Eaga plc. Eaga House, Archbold Terrace, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE2 1DB. Company registration number 3858865.”

Now, correct me if I am wrong, but I see some issues there.

  1. The scheme is being run by a private company, DSHS Limited.
  2. That private company has sub-contracted to another, Eaga plc.
  3. The government, through the DWP, has disclosed information about who has received disability benefits to said private companies.
  4. Local authorities have also sent information to this private company.
  5. TV Licensing (Capita) have given my information to DSHS and Eaga.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty pissed off about this. I’m fairly sure that I did not at any point give permission for my local council, the Department of Work and Pensions, or TV Licensing to tell anyone my name and address, what disabilities I may have, or what benefits I might have received. I believe this violates the princicples of the Data Protection Act 1998.

Schedule 1, part 1, section 2 states:

“Personal data shall be obtained only for one or more specified and lawful purposes, and shall not be further processed in any manner incompatible with that purpose or those purposes.”

At no point did anyone specify that information about benefits and disabilities was being collected for the purpose of marketing of digital television receivers.

So all parties involved have transferred my personal information to a third party without my consent, and are processing it in a way that was not specified when the data was collected. Unless someone can tell me why this is within the law I intend to make a complaint to the Information Commissioners Office.

—–ADDENDUM—–

As pointed out in the comments below, this is unfortunately legal as the government passed a law to allow it, the Digital Switchover Disclosure of Information Act 2007.