Charlie Elphicke MP: building a police state

Do MPs think before they speak? Are they really aware of what they are saying?

I was watching the discussion in parliament this morning about the lapse of the laws enabling 28 day detention without trial. I was shocked to hear this statement from Charlie Elphicke MP.

Text from Hansard.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con):Is not proper border control an essential part of a review to deal with terrorism? It is no good building a police state at home if we allow pretty much anyone, be they friend or foe, to wander into the country. Will the Minister consider stronger measures?

Damian Green: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Clearly, having strong and secure borders is one of the essential elements in our fight against international terrorism, and that, as he knows, is why one of the Government’s priorities is to make our borders more secure. We have been making significant progress on that over the past nine months.

What?!?!?! Does he honestly talk about building a police state not only as though it is happening, but also as though it is not a bad thing?! Outrageous. What where you thinking, Charlie?


I have communicated with Mr Elphicke via Twitter and he has stated the following.

“I want stronger borders, more freedom. I opposed the previous Labour Government building a Police state with weak borders.”
“Yes I am against a Police State. I believe in strong borders with more civil liberties at home.”

I would suggest to Mr Elphicke that he carefully considers the wording of his speeches and questions in future to make sure that others do not come away with the impression that he has the opposite view!

A head in the sand

I am lucky enough to have an MP that is very communicative. He not only responds quickly to letters, but he also treats email as real communication, and *gasp* even responds to constituents on Twitter. When my wife was being kept from working by an inexplicably delayed CRB check, he intervened and the certificate was here within two days.

Unfortunately the luck ends there. He seems to be blind to any evidence of what the governments ruthless cuts will do to people.  This conversation followed my suggestion that he read the One Month Before Heartbreak blog which is full of real people writing about how the the proposed changes to the benefit system will affect them. Full text after the screenshots.

The full text of that conversation
My original tweet: I urge @peterjluff – and everyone else – to look at where there are stories of many people that will suffer due to cuts.
I was retweeted (message passed on to followers) by Nemesis Republic:
RT @latentexistence: I urge @peterjluff – and everyone else – to look at stories of many peoplewill suffer due to cuts
Peter Luff replied to her:
@PeterJLuff: @NemesisRepublic But the alternative (letting country continue slide to bankruptcy with biggest deficit of any major country) is much worse
Apricot muffins commented:
@PeterJLuff I find this statement reprehensible. The disabled among us deserve every protection their country can give them, deficit or not
Which led to this response by Peter Luff:
@apricotmuffins And they will get that protection; what I find reprehensible are the scare stories

And there you have it. Talking about real disabled people in fear for their incomes, their care, their wheelchairs, is a scare story. Talking about our defecit, which isn’t anywhere near the problem that we have been told it is, is not.

In case you thought this is misinterpreting his views, here is another example.

The text of that:

Me: @PeterJLuff I’m afraid I just see savage cuts that are hurting the poor and vulnerable. Where is the social responsibility?
Peter Luff: @latentexistence Well I guess I won’t persuade you, but I see something completely different, with the vulnerable protected.


It transpires that Peter Luff is the patron of the local ME support group. As an invisible disease, ME is one of the most difficult diseases to get help for. I intend to ask Mr Luff how he can reconcile his view that the vulnerable are supported with his experiences with this group.

My dad, working through the pain

This is my second post dedicated to One month before heartbreak. The first is here: Invisible Illness, Invisible Benefits.

Today I am not going to write about me. I am going to write about my dad.

My dad used to be a plumber. He was good at his job and worked very hard to support us. In 1992 he seriously injured his back while lifting a boiler and suffered a prolapsed disc. The injury left him unable to sit or stand, and able to move around the house only on all fours. For months after his injury he spent most of his time in bed. Since my brother had just been born and I also have two sisters, my mum was caring for him and looking after us all. I don’t know how she managed it – I certainly wasn’t any help, I was glued to my computer the whole time.

My dad was sent for surgery in mid 1993 and he had a micro-discectomy to trim the disc back. It was successful, and he was able to walk again although with some discomfort. Not all was well though, and scar tissue formed and started to press on nerves in his back. Although physiotherapy helped, that remains a problem to this day. He was also found to have legs of differing length and a spine that is deteriorating, which has led to upper back problems that prevent him lifting much with his arms. He is now two inches shorter than before his injury. Ever since 1993, then, he has been able to walk at most about forty metres, with the use of a walking stick, before experiencing severe discomfort, i.e. pain.

In 1995 my dad started to study to fill the time. He started a BTEC course in computing and electronics at the local college, where he was allowed to go straight in to the second year because of experience from before he became a plumber. He went on to study for a degree in computing and multimedia on a mostly distance-learning based course. On the occasions when he did have to attend classes he was forced to travel on the bus for more than an hour in each direction, something that was very uncomfortable for him.

He eventually found it difficult to continue on the degree course because of his dyslexia, and so cut it short of a degree but left with a DipHE. He then went on to take a part time job as IT technician at the local college, even though he was not expected to work and could have continued to receive Incapacity Benefit. At that time he claimed Disability Living Allowance and since he clearly could not walk any distance or lift anything, or carry out activities necessary for living, such as cooking, he had no trouble getting it. With the help of DLA he acquired a Motability car which meant that he could at last leave the house without enduring pain from using public transport.

That job ended and was followed by a brief period of being too ill to work again but – again without being required to – he applied for a job repairing computers at the headquarters of a major computer company that was based locally. He was rejected twice but on the third application he enlisted the support of a disability officer at the job centre. The disability officer managed to get my dad into an interview and persuade the company that they would receive support for hiring a disabled person. He got the job.

The help that he received at this point was excellent. The Access to Work scheme provided him with a top of the range chair with adjustable supports all over the place, which made it possible for him to spend more time sitting to work. The company built – yes, custom built – a workbench in the computer repair workshop which placed equipment at exactly the right height. He did still had to work around some things such as getting colleagues to lift heavy computers, reaching for books on high shelves, and finding his own trolley to transport the computers. Even with all the help and adjustments working there caused him plenty of pain and detracted from his health. He loved the job though, and remained there for about ten years until the company went bust. After that he was unemployed and looking for work apart from six months spent repairing iPods, a job so low paid that he brought in less income than when on Job Seekers Allowance.

Just over a year ago my dad and I set up a computer repair business together as our only real option for finding work. Both of us are unemployable, he with his inability to walk or lift and his severe dyslexia, me with my unpredictable working hours and occasional weeks or months off sick. A little government help has been available, particularly Self Employment Credit, but mostly we have created the company from scratch with no money to invest. Unfortunately, since our new business is not providing any income as yet, my dad has had to take a part time job collecting cars that have finished their lease and so is less able to focus on the business. He loves repairing computers though, and after a day driving he will come back to our office and spend hours on that too.

And so to my point.

Despite being visibly disabled enough that he could spend his whole life receiving Incapacity Benefit and DLA, my dad has always chosen to work. Working has caused him pain and detracted from his health but he does it anyway. He pays his taxes and his National Insurance, and did so for many years before and after becoming disabled. He has received help in return: it is DLA which has enabled him to work. Without it, he would not have a car, and without a car he would not have been able to travel to any of his jobs. There is more that could be done – he would quite like a folding mobility scooter which would allow him to do more at his driving job, since he misses out on some available work through being unable to walk to cars in the yard to move them. Such a folding scooter costs about one and a half thousand pounds, and he has no hope of getting one. Instead of any government help to get this scooter, which would lead directly to him working more, earning more and paying more tax, he is instead facing an uncertain future. DLA is likely to be replaced with a new benefit that is designed expressly to cut government expenditure on such benefits by a third. He would be re-assessed, and faces a loss of at least part of that income, which puts his car at risk. If he does lose that car then he will not be working any more. He will be stuck at home. My mum also relies on that car as she is disabled too with various complications of diabetes, so this will be harmful to both of them.

Government cuts to disability benefits are likely to prevent my dad from working and become what the Daily Mail would term “A burden on the tax payer.” Does that make sense to anyone except a conservative government minister?

Invisible illness, invisible benefits

This post is dedicated to One month before heartbreak.

Hi, I’m Steve and I have an invisible illness. I have M.E.

I have had ME for just over 10 years now. My ME is somewhat variable. I have had cycles of months of being quite well, with perhaps 80% of my health, and months of being so ill that I barely left my bed. As you can imagine, this has made it quite difficult for me to hold down a job and so I have often had to rely on Incapacity Benefit and Disability Living Allowance.

Unfortunately, those two benefits are even less reliable than my health. The first time I needed incapacity benefit was while I had been working part time in a mobile phone shop. I went off sick again and became so ill that I spent 95% of my time in bed. I immediately received Statutory Sick Pay. (SSP) All well and good so far. Then I reached six months of being ill and SSP ran out. I had to apply for incapacity benefit.

The biggest problem that I had at that time was the application form. I recall it being large, somewhere around fifty pages. I remember trying to write on it but experiencing immense pain when I did so. I enlisted my wife to do the actual writing which solved that problem.  Then I waited. And waited. My wife was working at the time, but we both had student loans, overdrafts and credit cards. Already under severe financial strain from my loss of income, the delay in receiving incapacity benefit was the final straw. I was forced to file for bankruptcy, and I took my wife with me. I still feel horrible guilt about that today. After the bankruptcy we moved in to a flat that we shared with a friend I knew from university. Unable to leave the flat most of the time, I spent all of my good hours in chasing my benefit. Phone calls, letters, advisors that knew nothing, that could give me no reason, that promised to chase it up but never called back.  Eventually after months I was told that my incapacity benefit had been approved. I received a backdated payment, months worth of income! Of course it was too late to be any help in buying food or paying rent while we were struggling to pay and going bankrupt.

After the struggle for incapacity benefit, my basic living income, was complete, I turned my sights on Disability Living Allowance. (DLA) I knew this one was going to be difficult. The criteria for receiving DLA were not set with variable and invisible illnesses like mine. Although my daily life, care needs  and mobility were as severely affected as people with visible physical problems, the problem lay in convincing the decision makers of that fact.

And so I commenced on applying for DLA. The form made the previous incapacity benefit form look like a walk in the park.  It was HUGE. It was terrifying. It asked questions about everything, and I mean everything, about my illness. The minutest details of how I get myself food, take medicine and go to the toilet were all needed. Doctors reports were needed. It took me two months to summon the energy to get through it all. The form was just the beginning though. After I submitted it there was silence. After a little chasing up they eventually informed me that I must have a medical assessment. (Why, I don’t know. Obviously the GPs that write reports for them are not to be trusted.) The date of the medical examination was set for a few weeks away, at 8:30 in the morning which was just about the time that I would have managed to fall asleep after a night of insomnia.

The day of the examination came and the doctor arrived. He immediately took a condescending tone and a harsh manner with me, even as I was struggling to open the door and let him in. A bad start. Then it got worse. The questions came thick and fast. Everything covered in the application form was asked again. Already tired, this was bewildering and literally painful to go through. It couldn’t get any worse than this, could it? Yes. Yes it could. Questioning over and with me barely able to move after the onslaught, I was ordered to stand. “Raise your arms” I was told. I struggled to comply, pain washing through my body. “Lift your left leg.” I collapsed, dizzy, in pain, no energy, but the impossible orders continued. After some time, an amount that I cannot remember because of the extreme exhaustion, he told me he was finished and he left.

Then there was the chasing. As before, it took all of my “good” time to try to find out what was going on. No communications came through. Eventually, months after my application, I received the terrifying brown envelope. REFUSED. And the appeal process started. More forms. Letters explaining why I needed help. More silence. My memory of this period is hazy now, I think there was another rejection and another appeal form before my case was sent to a tribunal.

On the day of the tribunal my wife took the day off work and we were given a lift there by a friend. I remember sitting across the table from four stern looking people. They all had copies of my appeal forms, my medical notes. The sham of a medical assessment report. These people knew more about my medical history than anyone else. They asked me questions for an hour until I was visibly wilting, and then they sent us back to the waiting room. Finally I was called back in and informed that I would receive lower rate care. Success! Sort of. I had applied hoping for care and mobility allowances, but in the end I received a mere £16.05 per week. All of that HELL for sixteen quid a week. The only consolation was that they owed me that backdated for nearly two years!

All the while my attempts to claim DLA were going on, I was also still dealing with the Job Centre in relation to my incapacity benefit. Not content with simply allowing me to receive it and focus on recovery, I was required to attend an interview with a disability advisor every few weeks. Every meeting was the same. The advisor was friendly and we would have a good chat. We would bemoan the fact that I was required to attend these meetings even though the travel would set my health back and would need a week of recovery. We would look at what jobs I could do and conclude that no employer would take me with such an unpredictable ability to work. He would suggest an internet business since I had occasionally sold things on eBay. I would promise to look into it if I had the energy, and then I would return home to spend a week in bed.

I did start to recover to some extent. I managed to leave the house more often. I would have many good hours, but I remained largely unemployable because I could just not say which hours of the week I might be able to work. Then one day I received another terrifying brown envelope. I would be required to attend a medical examination to continue receiving incapacity benefit. An assessment at home was not an option, and I was told that I must visit them or lose my benefit. I won’t go into detail of the assessment here, but I will say it was not as bad as the previous one. I went in visibly wobbly and using a walking stick. The interviewer was not harsh but was not friendly either. I went home in a hopeful state. Silly me. A short time afterwards I was informed that I had been found fit to work. No account was taken of my unpredictable and variable symptoms.

I managed to find a job through pure chance. My friend that we shared a flat with had received a better job offer and he gave his boss a glowing reference for my computing abilities. I attended an interview where I was brutally honest about my illness and the possiblities. By amazing good fortune, I got on really well with the interviewer and we were good friends by the time I left the interview, and so I started a job as IT technician at a timber company.

Things didn’t go to badly at first. I managed to get there on time every day. (Well, 5 minutes late because of train timing, but that was allowed for.) I got through most working days and my boss was sympathetic when I turned the lights out to work or took rests in the office during the day. Outside of work, I was wrecked. All my energy had gone on the job and there was none left for home life. I spent much of my evenings and weekends in bed, whimpering in pain, if I even had the energy for that.

After a year my boss took a new job and I was promoted and hired my replacement technician. I liked that. My manager had had such an easy job compared to me! It wasn’t enough though. I started to get flaky, to miss work. I carried on working as much as I could. The operations director was also a good friend by that time and he worked things out so that I could do my job in the hours that suited me. Other staff and directors had noticed my flakiness and he defended me from them. He pointed out that I was good at what I did, that I achieved in 16 to 20 hours a week what other staff had sometimes not even finished. I lasted a few more months but eventually the crunch point came and I went off sick for a full two months. I still helped out where I could by answering emails and text messages. Around about that time I had to re-apply for DLA. I was sent a new form. They wanted everything from scratch! I just couldn’t face it again. I gave up, ignored the form and my DLA stopped. When I resumed work it was on the basis of 16 hours a week done from home or office. I was grateful that they didn’t fire me, but then they could not find any replacement that they would trust with their IT.

In August 2009 I resigned from that job following signs of imminent failure of the company and a rather stupid takeover attempt by the managing directors wife. It had got rather political and I felt personally attacked when the operations director was blamed for all sorts of things. For a long time my father had jokingly been saying to me that if I started an IT company then he would work for me. I resigned, moved back to my parents home town and together with my father started a business to repair computers. With both of us being disabled, we intended to build up the company and then hire more people so that we could both do only 20 hours a week. We received minimal help from the government but together we have built that company up and today we are starting to get regular repeat customers. Unfortunately business is not yet high enough to actually take any wages out of the business but that could be close.

Unfortunately I must end this story on a low point. In November I had flu, and again in December. Combined with too much activity over Christmas that has left me in a complete relapse and more ill than I have been since 2003. Customers are coming in but I cannot deal with them and my father is struggling to cope with it all. Yesterday was a better day, so I am hopeful that I will not be completely stuck in bed for more than a couple of weeks and then can get back to work.

If that doesn’t happen, I am stuffed. I will give up. There is absolutely no point in me applying for Employment Support Allowance, the replacement for incapacity benefit, and definitely no point in applying for DLA.  I wouldn’t get it, even while unable to leave my bed at all, and the application process would hurt me. Another medical assessment would set my recovery back for months. Disabled people were treated badly enough by the previous government, the actions of this one in cutting benefits and making the criteria even stricter are despicable.

Shame the police – by supporting them

I have been very vocal in condemning the police for their actions at the series of protests against tuition fees last year. I wrote in some detail about police violence and about their alleged use of an old van as bait to incite violence and provide an excuse for harsher policing. It was obviously a popular view, since those posts on my personal blog got some 14,000 views in a few days and are still more than half of my traffic.

It may surprise you to know, then, that if and when members of the police go on strike and march in protest against budget cuts and loss of jobs, I think those of us in the anti-cuts movement should be protesting alongside them.

The police do an important job in our society. They aren’t all that effective, they aren’t without their defects, but I believe that many police joined up to help people. Yes, some police are violent thugs, some go looking for violence. Since violence is what sells the news, that gets talked about, but most police aren’t like that.

Some police procedures are unjust and illiberal. Apart from kettling and stifling the right to protest, they also have Forward Intelligence Teams taking photographs of innocent people for unofficial police records. They arrest people for the sole reason of taking their details which they would not otherwise be allowed to do, then “de-arrest” them but keep the details. They keep DNA and fingerprints of those cleared of crimes. I think it likely that those procedures are a result of orders from the top, and to counter them needs a change in the attitudes of police administration, or perhaps simply a change of those at the top.

The few nasty police, the ones that like violence, they are likely to be the ones doing things like hassling photographers when they have no right to and making up laws on the spot to support their way of thinking and intimidate. Those are the bullies. Those are the ones that we want out, but right now our fight is elsewhere.

I think what happened at the protests on the 9th of December last year is a typical escalation of violence between two sides that cannot back down. Petty little things turn in to stubborn commands and refusal to comply, which is met with increasing anger on both sides. Eventually the police are hitting people and some elements of the crowd are giving a typical reaction of a young person perceiving injustice against them or their friends, and fighting back. It’s built in to both sides. In this situation neither side can see that backing off would cool things down. It’s the typical response seen in family feuds (“He said she said”) and wars between tribes, or countries. (“They slaughtered us!” “They massacred us first!”) Ultimately I believe that apart from a few violent idiots and bullies on both sides, the rest of the police involved in violence at the protests were caught up in this self-feeding loop of stubbornness and tribal defensiveness.

I have witnessed this effect still in action even now when talking to various people that were involved. Some activists are of the opinion that police marches against job losses should be countered with protests against police violence to “shame the police” and that the police should be kettled in retaliation for what they did.

I offer the counter argument that the anti-cuts movement should march and protest in support of the police. Those police are ordinary people with families and rents and mortgages. At previous protests the crowd have shouted “Your jobs are next!” to try and gain police support. Well now their jobs are next, and it’s time to do for them what they wouldn’t do for us.


How to be an MP: two-faced politics

A few days ago I was bored and joking around with people on Twitter. My thoughts went off on a tangent and I coined some rules on how to be an MP. Here they are.

  1. Always answer a different question to the one that you where asked.
  2. When confronted with a good argument, claim that your policies have not been understood.
  3. Make any promise you like during your election campaign. After election you can claim things have changed.
  4. Choose a political party based on your chances of making it to the top, not on policies.

These aren’t actually rules, of course. They are observations of the way that our politicians behave.

Evading the question

We have all seen and heard politicians evading questions during interviews. Some radio and television presenters have become well known for pressing hard for an answer, but on so many occasions the politician will try to deflect attention away from giving one. The sad thing is that politicians feel that they can’t answer so many questions. I would put it to you that if they are ashamed or afraid to give the public the real answer, then they are doing something wrong. A policy that has to be kept secret is not a policy that belongs in a democracy. Sometimes giving the correct answer can be damaging to a reputation or a policy simply because the public do not have all of the information behind a decision – once again this is a failure to be an open government.

“I’m just misunderstood”

Nick Clegg insulted a lot of people during the recent protests against increased tuition fees by suggesting that they had not read and understood the policy on tuition fees, because otherwise they would agree with him.

“I make just one request of those planning to protest – examine our proposals before taking to the streets. Listen and look before you march and shout.” (From The Guardian)

This tactic of insulting the opposition by suggesting that if they read your policy, or were just a bit cleverer then they would agree, seems to be horribly common.

Promises, promises

The most famous promise broken by a politician has to be Nick Cleggs anti-tuition fee pledge. He won many votes after he and most of the other LibDem parliamentary candidates signed a pledge stating “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament.” When it came to the time to vote, though, he voted for the increase. Being in a coallition does not give an MP a mandate to go back on an absolute promise like that and the LibDems would not have won so much of the vote if the pledge had gone on to say “except if we are in a coallition government.”

David Cameron was asked on many occasions during the last election if the Conservatives would increase VAT. He gave the same answer over and over again. “We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT.” He also said “You could try, as you say, to put it on VAT, sales tax, but again if you look at the effect of sales tax, it’s very regressive, it hits the poorest the hardest. It does, I absolutely promise you.” It is clear that he knows that VAT hurts the lowest paid. While this is not the same thing as promising not to raise VAT, he mislead people when he said these things.

The promise to get rid of control orders is another one that the LibDems are likely to break. Instead of clearly opposing them, as they promised to do, they are considering various options, non of which are scrapping them. According to the BBC it looks likely that they will be replaced with slightly less restrictive, but still disgustingly illiberal “Surveillance orders” – another name for nearly the same thing.

It’s my party and I’ll change if I want to

MPs switching party in protest does not seem to be uncommon. I find it as baffling as Anglican priests becoming Catholics.

In 2007 Quentin Davies  moved from Conservative to Labour.

In 2004 Jane Griffiths threatened to leave Labour for the Conservatives but didn’t go through with it.

In 2001 Paul Marsden went from Labour to the Liberal Democrats and back again in 2005!

In 1977 Reg Prentice left the Labour party for the Conservatives because Labour had become too left wing.

Just for fun, here is an interesting allegation that Nick Clegg was once a member of the Cambridge University Conservative Association.


It seems that no matter what you believe before an election, actually getting into power means compromising your beliefs. Some argue that it is inevitable, but I don’t think it has to be. I think the current system requires a politician to become two-faced, to make promises that they don’t mean or can’t keep. Once in power, hiding the truth from the public becomes imperative. Things have to change.

I will leave you with this quote from Baron Acton (1834–1902).

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Privacy online: Where is my paranoid computer?

Calling for a system that can be used to start a computer that will automatically connect to the internet through random nearby computers, will encrypt everything that is sent over the internet, will send said information on a random untraceable route through the internet, and produces emails and documents that are provably written by a certain person and not tampered with.

I wrote a few weeks ago on the importance of secrecy. I also reviewed a book by Cory Doctorow, Little Brother. One of the things that caught my eye while reading the book was a version of Linux with an interesting description.

“Paranoid Linux is an operating system that assumes that its operator is under assault from the government (it was intended for use by Chinese and Syrian dissidents), and it does everything it can to keep your communications and documents a secret.”
Cory Doctorow (Little Brother, 2008)

In the story, activists had put together an alternative operating system based on Linux and called Paranoid Linux. An operating system is the software that tells the computer how to behave, where to store information, and determines what software or ‘Apps’ you can use. Paranoid Linux took the form of a Live CD, that is a CD that can be used to startup a computer and work without storing anything on the built in disk. The interesting thing about Doctorow’s description of Paranoid Linux is that it brings together a number of technologies that when combined make a persons activities on the computer and on the internet completely anonymous, untraceable and unreadable to anyone not intended to see them, and yet completely trustworthy and verifiable as the person they claim to be to the intended recipient. The technology described also allows a person to turn on their computer in any reasonably populated location and be connected to the internet wirelessly by hopping through other computers in a mesh network to find an internet connection.

Another facet of the story is that Xboxes were given away for free in order to sell software. (The razor blade model) The availability of free computers is a powerful temptation, and so crackers had broken the security that allowed the Xbox to only play official games, and produced a version of Paranoid Linux that allowed the free Xboxes to be used as full computers. Through a combination of freely available hardware and underground distribution of CDs containing Paranoid Linux, it because ubiquitous and allowed people in close enough proximity to form a mesh network.

The amazing thing about the technology described is that it all exists. The frustrating thing is that no one has managed to bring it all together in the way described in the story. An attempt at modeling some of it had been started with a real world Paranoid Linux project, but that has since ceased development and no one else has taken up the challenge.

So what are the technologies involved?

  • Mesh networking
  • Random anonymous routing
  • End-to-end encryption of all traffic such as web pages, email, chat and voice
  • Digital signatures and proof of identity
  • Fake internet traffic (Chaff) to provide a decoy and hide real information
A mesh network

Mesh networking is a way of linking up computers in an ad-hoc way so that a computer at one side of the group could send a message via computers in the middle all the way to the other side. Since all computers in a mesh network are linked, if one has a connection to the internet then all of them can use it. Mesh networks provide a way for people to get on line in rural areas with few internet connections, and has been implemented by the One Laptop Per Child ($100 laptop) project for use in third world countries. Mesh networks are not yet popular, but if they became so then they could be used to extend any free public WiFi points far beyond their current reach.

Random anonymous routing has been implemented in the Tor project. With Tor installed on a computer, web pages and other communications are bounced through computers belonging to several other Tor users, picked at random, before reaching the desired server. Tor is in popular usage right now in places like China and Iran to allow ordinary people to get around censorship imposed by the government. Tor is recommended by organisations like indymedia and the Electronic Frontier Foundation as a way to safeguard the privacy of their members. Tor is also recommended for whistle blowers to use when communicating with journalists. Even governments use Tor. From the Tor website:

“A branch of the U.S. Navy uses Tor for open source intelligence gathering, and one of its teams used Tor while deployed in the Middle East recently. Law enforcement uses Tor for visiting or surveilling web sites without leaving government IP addresses in their web logs, and for security during sting operations.”

Encryption is already used on web pages for activities such as shopping and sometimes when logging in to a website. (The padlock symbol that we are all trained to look for means that encryption is in use between the web browser and the server.) Encryption can be added to other communications such as email using software like Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) or the free open source equivalent Gnu Privacy Guard. (GnuPG)

Both PGP and GnuPG use what is called Public Key Encryption where every user has a public and a private key. Anything encrypted with the public key can only be read using the private key, which means that it is possible to send information securely without having to exchange keys in secret. Conversely, anything can be signed with the private key, and anyone that has the public key and trusts that it is the right one, can be certain that the person that signed that document is who they say they are and also that the document has not been modified since then.

I could not find any software that provides fake internet traffic (Chaff)  to cover up the real communications. People have talked about it but few have bothered to create any tools to do it. Perhaps this one is not so necessary.

Another technology that I would want to add to the mix is an Intrusion Detection System that looks out for malicious attacks on the computer via the internet and watches operating system files to make sure that they are not modified by malicious software or by outside agencies attempting to spy. This software should provide a warning if a system is compromised.

So why do we need all of this privacy? The tools that I have described here are already in use all around the world. Most often they are used to hide from oppressive governments in places such as China and Iran, but they are useful for many other people. Journalists, whistle blowers, activists, celebrities avoiding publication of their information, people working in sensitive jobs, and many others can all make use of these privacy tools.  Everyone has sensitive information, many transmit that over the internet. Privacy tools can be used in any location to help secure information. For example they would be useful when using open public WiFi which are otherwise easily subverted to spy on the end users.

There is a possibility that using tools to allow anonymity and privacy could draw attention to the people using them. If only a few use such tools then it could be possible to identify the internet connections with obfuscated traffic and therefore find their addresses. The answer lies in making sure that there are legitimate uses of these tools and persuading as many people as possible to use them. When all internet traffic is secured then nothing will stand out from the crowd to be tracked.

Would this get in the way of police investigations? Undoubtedly the answer is yes. Routine encryption and obfuscation of internet traffic will prevent the police from keeping tabs on suspects. And I have sympathy for them. The ability to read the email of a bomber before he does damage is very helpful in investigations, just as is the ability to tap their phone. But realising that this will make it harder for police investigations does not cause me to change my mind about it. The police and the myriad of government agencies have been routinely trawling the commmunications of many people. That is not seen as a problem when it leads to an arrest before a bombing or a kidnapping, but people should have a different opinion when the ones being observed are not planning any crime, but simply to oppose the government on illiberal laws or cuts to services, or support the publication of information. Those in power are not meant to go on fishing expeditions for our data, they are supposed to obtain a warrant from a judge on those occasions when a suspects communications could provide evidence to prevent a crime or to prosecute.

A would love to have a new edition of Paranoid Linux which bundled all of these privacy tools and made them easy to use straight out of the box. Perhaps it could be built as an offshoot of one of the existing distributions of Linux such as Ubuntu, which already has the ease of use that would be required. I see no reason why these tools could not be distributed as one installable package that could be added to an existing operating system. There could even be a version for Windows. The key thing is to make the tools available to all, easy to configure and use, and above all to make people aware of their existence and the reasons to use them.

Addendum: The non-technical summary

What I want is a system that can be used to start a computer that will automatically connect to the internet through random nearby computers, will encrypt everything that is sent over the internet, will send said information on a random untraceable route through the internet, and produces emails and documents that are provably written by a certain person and not tampered with.

Broken government: where next?

Millie Kidson asks on her blog where we will go when the coallition government ends. (Suggested reading before you continue here.)

This question has been perplexing me too. I was a member of the Liberal Democrat party for a few years and I had intended not only to get involved in the local party, but also potentially to stand for election at some later date. That isn’t going to happen with the LibDems now. The LibDems were never really a good fit for me anyway, my membership was a compromise since I fit in to that lower left square on the Political Compass that no party except the Greens seem anywhere near.

I dislike the party whip system where legislation is decided strictly on party lines. I dislike having one party in a majority that can force through stupid law after stupid law. What I would like is a parliament where new legislation has to convince a majority of MPs, not a party leader. Basically, I want a hung parliament. Forever. A lot less legislation would make it through but what little did emerge ought to be good because it has won the support of a majority of MPs. Many will argue that this would cripple the government but I don’t think so. I think it would force MPs to come up with decent laws instead of knee jerk reactions.

The ideal situation as far as I am concerned is for Proportional Representation to be brought in and for government to be composed of a variety of different party and independant MPs to produce the situation that I described above. Unfortunately that isn’t going to happen. What we are being offered is AV which is a poor relation to PR, although better than First Past the Post which is what we have at the moment. With AV the makeup of parliament will change slightly, but not that much. I think if the coallition were to fail and an election be held now or even after AV, it would be a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives. The LibDems have squandered their support and won’t be back for a long time. I couldn’t in a million years bring myself to vote Conservative, so I guess we’re left with Labour or Green.

I think I would quite like to support the Green party, their policies on social responsibility and on spending are quite in line with mine. (See the Political Compass again to see where you stand.) but just like the LibDems in the past, they lack the critical amount of support to give even a possibility of getting into power, and so people stay away from them. The traditional “wasted vote.”

So where can those that want caring social policies, help for those that need it, support from the rich and the big business, go? I predict that the bulk of the anti-cuts movement will never vote Conservative, will never forgive the LibDems, and most will not think that the Greens have a chance, so they won’t have. Most are likely to vote for Labour or not vote at all. I think that’s a shame. We need to fight for full Proportional Representation, and then we need a complete mix up of views in power to provide us with a balanced and rational government.

Guest post: Lobbying your Political Representative

This is a guest post by Puffles the Whitehall Dragon Fairy. Puffles is a Whitehall insider who tweets under the name Puffles2010. This post was first published on the website of UK Uncut and is reproduced here with permission.

Puffles the Dragon Fairy notes that everyone found out the hard way what happens if we do not keep tabs on our elected representatives: they end up doing stupid things, like claiming expenses for duck houses or moat cleaning, rather than holding central and local government to account.

As you may be aware, Puffles buzzes around Whitehall and keeps tabs on a small but friendly group of public servants. They have helped Puffles come up with this guide for people who want to lobby their MPs and Councillors. Continue reading “Guest post: Lobbying your Political Representative”

All your photos are belong to Facebook

Does Facebook have the right to sell your photos? Worryingly, the answer is probably yes.

The original photo as used by the Daily Mail. ©UCL Occupation

The Daily Mail published a story (The word story is used here in the loosest possible sense.) about Aaron Peters, a student involved in the UCL Occupation and the UK Uncut protests. The second photo in that article, also shown above, was taken by a friend of Aarons and was posted to Flickr, where it is licensed for re-use by others under the Creative Commons “Some rights reserved” license. This would allow anyone to use the photo as long as they attribute the copyright of the photo to “UCL Occupation” or provide a link back to the photo on Flickr, as I have here.

Copyright as shown by the Daily Mail

However, the Daily Mail has actually labelled the picture as ©Facebook. This would imply that they took the photo from Facebook, where it had been uploaded for ease of sharing with friends. It is possible that the Mail simply lifted the photo from Facebook without permission, which would be straightforward copyright violation. However, reading the the Facebook Statement of Rights and Responsibilities gives this information:

2. Sharing Your Content and Information

You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings. In addition:

  1. For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (“IP content”), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (“IP License”). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.

Basically, that boils down to saying that Facebook can give or sell your photo to anyone that they like, for any purpose including commercial use and publication in a national newspaper. The question is, do Facebook have this arrangement with the Daily Mail? Is it the case that the Daily Mail can use any photo that has been uploaded to Facebook? Do they pay per photo or do they have a blanket license agreement?

One thing is certain. I won’t be putting any more photos on Facebook.

—Addendum —

Many people are saying that the license granted to Facebook is subject to your privacy settings. That is not true. The order and the wording used clearly show that the license that you grant to Facebook overrides the preceding statement. Privacy settings such as ‘Friends only’ may have prevented the Daily Mail from seeing the picture at all, but that is not the issue here.

It is a necessary evil to grant a license to Facebook to display your photo, otherwise they could not show it to people viewing Facebook. The problem arrises because the license that Facebook claim is much broader than necessary, granting them a sub-licensable, royalty free use of your photo. That is the wording that allows them to sell your photo and keep the profits.

It might be that the Daily Mail stole the photograph without permission and the ©Facebook is  half hearted attempt to get away with it. It might be that Facebook sold the license to them. Either way, people need to know.