Friday, June 30, 2006

Blair on the paperless NHS

Tony Bliar took the opportunity at PMQs this week to declare his belief in a paperless NHS

""In the end, one of the huge benefits of having a National Health Service is that we can have electronic patient records that are transferable right around the system," he said. "If that happens, it means not just an end to vast amounts of paperwork in the NHS, but that things such as patient choice, for example, can become a reality."

Wasn't it about 40 or 50 years ago we started hearing about the paperless office?

UK Research Councils retreat from Open Access Policy

From the Chronicle, "A year after releasing a draft policy on open access, the umbrella organization of Britain’s publicly financed research councils has softened its stance. The group, Research Councils UK, originally called for free access to papers resulting from research it financed “at the earliest opportunity” (The Chronicle, June 29, 2005). But now, in a new policy statement released today, the group will allow each of the eight member councils to formulate its own policy. "

Independent article that may get you arrested

There was a dramatic claim on the front of yesterday's Independent that reading the paper might get you arrested. The potentially offending article was penned by Henry Porter and reprinted from Vanity Fair. A management accountant, Stephen Jago, was arrested on the 18th of June in and around Whitehall, a designated no-protest area, when found to be carrying several copies of Porter's original article.

"In the guise of fighting terrorism and maintaining public order, Tony Blair's Government has quietly and systematically taken power from Parliament and the British people. The author charts a nine-year assault on civil liberties that reveals the danger of trading freedom for security - and must have Churchill spinning in his grave

I might add that this column also comes with the more serious warning that, if rights have been eroded in the land once called "the Mother of Parliaments", it can happen in any country where a government actively promotes the fear of terrorism and crime and uses it to persuade people that they must exchange their freedom for security."

Thursday, June 29, 2006

US Supreme court deal blow to President Bush

The US Supreme Court has dealt a significant blow to the Bush administration by ruling, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, that Osama Bin Laden's alleged former chauffeur, who is detained in Guantanamo Bay, is entitled to the protection of article 3 of the Geneva Convention. The gist of it is that the "war on terror" does not give the President a blank check to label someone an "enemy combatant" and allow them to be tried and convicted without due process or through military tribunals/commissions (specially set up military war crimes trials) .

Marty Lederman at SCOTUS blog considers the decision to be hugely significant:

"As I predicted below, the Court held that Congress had, by statute, required that the commissions comply with the laws of war -- and held further that these commissions do not (for various reasons).

More importantly, the Court held that Common Article 3 of Geneva aplies as a matter of treaty obligation to the conflict against Al Qaeda. That is the HUGE part of today's ruling. The commissions are the least of it. This basically resolves the debate about interrogation techniques, because Common Article 3 provides that detained persons "shall in all circumstances be treated humanely," and that "[t]o this end," certain specified acts "are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever"—including "cruel treatment and torture," and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." This standard, not limited to the restrictions of the due process clause, is much more restrictive than even the McCain Amendment. See my further discussion here.

This almost certainly means that the CIA's interrogation regime is unlawful, and indeed, that many techniques the Administation has been using, such as waterboarding and hypothermia (and others) violate the War Crimes Act (because violations of Common Article 3 are deemed war crimes).

If I'm right about this, it's enormously significant."

It may indeed be significant from a legal perspective but what is it actually going to mean in practice? The UK government's recent court defeats on anti terror measures might offer some insight?

The next new Rio (aka endangered gadget)

Derek Slater is worried that Neuros MPEG4 Recorder 2 (the "R2") is the next endangered gadget likely to fall foul of proposed expansions to intellectual property law.

"Last week, Congress held yet another hearing about "plugging the analog hole." Why is Hollywood so bent on making all analog-to-digital technologies obey copyright holders' commands? Because in an age of DRM on digital media, the analog hole is often the last refuge for fair use and for innovators trying to build new gadgets to take your rights into the digital age.

Take the Neuros MPEG4 Recorder 2 (the "R2"), an endangered gizmo that digitizes analog video output and records it to a CF card or a memory stick in MPEG4 format. The video can then be put on your computer, burned to DVD, moved to your video iPod, or slotted right into your Sony PSP. You can also output video to a display device from the R2.

In turn, the R2 helps you make legitimate use of your media and lawfully escape DRM restrictions."

It's a clever way of getting round the anti-circumvention provisions of the EU copyright directive and the DMCA - making digital copies in drm free format of the analog output of audio or video files. No wonder the music & movie industries don't like it.

Dutch Parliament says no to European criminal law against IP violations

From the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure FFII, Dutch Parliament says no to European criminal law against IP violations

"The Hague, June 29th 2006. Both Chambers of the Dutch Parliament (Staten-Generaal) have unanimously concluded that the European Commission has no competence to propose a directive to criminalise intellectual property violations. According to the Parliament, the Commission interprets a recent European Court of Justice decision (C-176/03) too broadly. It is the first time Brussels interferes with criminal measures without the member states having a veto.

After concluding the Commission lacks competence there was no need to investigate the proposal any further. Nonetheless both Chambers submitted the directive to the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality and concluded that the proposal fails to meet these tests too. "

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The perils of academic publishing

Martin has published a gentle rant on academic publishing on his new blog.

"I had an article (The Distance from Isolation) accepted for publication in Computers and Education. It has now been 'in press' for over a year now, with no indication as to when it will actually be published. By the time it is, it will be out of date. I'm sure it's not the case but it reminds me of Chelsea FC - they buy the best players not with an intention of playing them but simply to stop other teams having them.

This is but one example of the very strange world of academic publishing. For those who don't engage in it, the deal goes something like this:

  • Academics provide the content
  • Academics do the reviewing
  • Academics often do the editing
  • Publishers print it and sell it back to academics
  • Authors are often restricted from making their own work publicly available
  • Authors receive no payment for the published work

Not an entirely fair system one would have thought, but because journal publication is tied up with academic esteem, promotion and the rather pernicious RAE, it is a process many of us feel compelled to go along with."

Bypassing the Great Firewall of China

Richard Clayton is presenting a paper at the 6th Workshop on Privacy Enhancing Technologies being held in Cambridge this week describing how to bypass the great firewall of China.

"It turns out [caveat: in the specific cases we’ve closely examined, YMMV] that the keyword detection is not actually being done in large routers on the borders of the Chinese networks, but in nearby subsidiary machines. When these machines detect the keyword, they do not actually prevent the packet containing the keyword from passing through the main router (this would be horribly complicated to achieve and still allow the router to run at the necessary speed). Instead, these subsiduary machines generate a series of TCP reset packets, which are sent to each end of the connection. When the resets arrive, the end-points assume they are genuine requests from the other end to close the connection — and obey. Hence the censorship occurs.

However, because the original packets are passed through the firewall unscathed, if both of the endpoints were to completely ignore the firewall’s reset packets, then the connection will proceed unhindered! We’ve done some real experiments on this — and it works just fine!! Think of it as the Harry Potter approach to the Great Firewall — just shut your eyes and walk onto Platform 9¾.

Ignoring resets is trivial to achieve by applying simple firewall rules… and has no significant effect on ordinary working."

Ed Felten wonders whether this process used by the great firewall actually breaches US law

"This trick of forging Reset packets has been used by denial-of-service attackers in the past, and there are well-known defenses against it that have been built into popular networking software. However, these defenses generally don’t work against an attacker who can see legitimate traffic between the target machines, as the Great Firewall can.

What the Great Firewall is doing, really, is launching a targeted denial of service attack on both ends of the connection. If I visit a Chinese website and access certain content, the Great Firewall will send denial of service packets to a machine in China, which probably doesn’t violate Chinese law. But it will also send denial of service packets to my machine, here in the United States. Which would seem to implicate U.S. law."

Doc Searls on User Centric ID

William Heath passes on some sensible thoughts from Doc Searls on user centric identity.

"T1 identities are both timeless & unconditional. They are your true personal digital identity and are owned and controlled entirely by you, for your sole benefit...

Tier 2 is Assigned (Corporate): one given to you by some silo. Every card in our wallets, other than our business cards, are these.

Tier 3 is Abstracted (Marketing) and applies to those conditions where some company knows, say, your name and address, but nothing besides that, which doesn't stop them from spamming you with junk mail...

In the absence of providing and communicating the immediate and tangible benefits of user-centrism, we'll continue getting the kind of reaction my wife has had from the beginning of my sojourn into this space: "I don't want more identity. I want less." Less, that is, of what she gets on the Web today, which is the same MSO (Multiple Sign On) hell everybody else experiences.

The one adjective that appeals to her, out of all we've been using to describe the user-centric identity experience, is independence...

I know we need to talk about identity agents and solutions and providers and relying parties and assertions and tokens and certificates and the rest of what it will take to build out the first customer-centric marketplaces in the history of the industrialized world, but...

We have to keep the empowering real-world experiences we wish to support in mind.

And, frankly, we don't have those yet. Worse, customers can barely imagine them. Hence, there is no demand for them. Yet.

So we need some demo-sells here."

Russian T34 tanks and the NHS IT system

Max Hotopf at idealgovernment thinks the government make too many simple things unnecessarily complicated.

"This government could learn a lot from the machine which won the Second World War, the Soviet T34 battle tank.

Whilst the Germans produced seven different tank models and 12 variants the Soviets concentrated on pushing the T34 out in tens of thousands. It wasn’t the best tank of the war - honours there probably go to the German Tiger which boasted features such as a night sight that NATO couldn’t match until the late 1960s. But the Tiger epitomised the old saying “the best is the enemy of the good” – it was vastly expensive and rather slow. The T34 was crude and uncomfortable, but it was well armoured and manoeuvrable with punchy firepower. Having one main battle tank made manufacturing simple and machines could be swiftly cannabalised in the field. The T34 did the job...

So what sort of tanks does this government produce?

Let’s look at the NHS IT system or the 15 different funding initiatives for secondary schools. Always there seems to be a delight in complexity for its own sake, a lack of any attempt to strip systems back to functional basics.

Why should the NHS IT system be quite as massively complicated as the numbers suggest? On almost any rational basis it is surely impossible to justify this level of expenditure? A T34 approach would be to take existing systems which work well at, say, GP level, and spread them around the country. A T34er would accept that integration between the GP system and the best hospital systems was less than perfect, count the cost, look at functionality and shrug the shoulder.

I can understand why spending billions on customer relationship management might make sense to a private company which faces intense competition. But why should the UK government be taking these sorts of risks with monopoly services...

Why this love of complexity? The answer is simple. Too many people have a vested interest in complex solutions – politicians because they provide prestige, the civil service because they provide careers and consultants because they provide a steady stream of income."

He's right about perspectives and agendas driving the love of complex IT projects but it was his reference to the T34 which peaked my interest because I happen to be writing about it at the moment in the draft of chapter 7 of my book. I'm not sure the T34 story will survive the final cut but I've just been making the point about running with something that is "just good enough" ("the best is the enemy of the good") in connection with the deployment of radar in the British air defence system in the run up to the war.

My colleague, Sue Holwell, has written a wonderful case study, in Chapter 5 of her book co-written with Peter Checkland, using the story of radar to illustrate the difference between information technology and information systems. The real beauty of the story is that it makes the point without having to talk about computers. Interestingly, the title of the chapter is "The Information System Which Won The War".

In terms of technology, the T34, the Spitfire, radar, the Colossus computer and the Mustang are often mentioned in the realms of machines that won the war. All of these stories illustrate the strength of coherent systems. Arguably, in the case of the Mustang, for example, it did not reach its peak as the most effective combat plane of the War until Rolls Royce liaison pilot, Ronnie Harker, flew one in 1942 and suggested its performance could be massively improved by fitting a Rolls Royce merlin engine, rather than the Allison V-1710s which it had been flying with up until that point.

Blair's betrayal of liberty

AC Grayling has been attacking Tony Blair's demolition of civil liberties again.

"In the early phase of the second world war, when a huge enemy army was assembled on the French coast in preparation for an invasion of the British Isles, and while the air arm of that force was daily bombing us, the British government introduced a number of temporary - note: temporary - restrictions on civil liberties, including ID cards and limitations on press freedom. Pre-war liberties were restored after the war's end. Today, in the face of far smaller, localised, intermittent threats from tiny numbers of people, the Labour government proposes to introduce permanent - note: permanent - diminutions of our civil liberties, among them ID cards ( that is, number plates for people) and storage of biometric data, with this linked to a central, national, computerised registry.

What has changed? Answer: the mentality, the quality, the intelligence, and the ethics of our political leaders."

Privacy International sue over US access to finance data

According to the NYT, Privacy International has "filed complaints in 32 countries alleging that the banking consortium, known as Swift, violated European and Asian privacy laws by giving the United States access to its data."

Privacy International's webpage on SWIFT doesn't yet say anything about complaints. The NYT article also says "a Chicago lawyer, Steven E. Schwarz, filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Swift on Friday alleging that it had violated United States financial privacy statutes."

Thanks to Ian the link to the NYT article.

NYU Report - one person could change an election

New York University's Brennan Center for Justice has been studying electronic voting systems and has concluded, not surprisingly, that they are vunerable to attack. It's not all bad news, though, as their report also concludes that the threat of interference with the voting process can be reduced by simple countermeasures, including random audits of paper records and a ban on wireless systems. You can find an executive summary of the report here.

The press release claims the report is the "first-ever systematic analysis of security vulnerabilities" in the three most common evoting systems used in the US, but that's just sales-speak probably by someone who doesn't realise that computer scientists like Avi Rubin, Ed Felten, Rebecca Mercuri, David Dill (a co-author of the Brennan report) and many others have been warning about the security problems with electronic voting for years. Rubin is publishing a book on the subject later this year and is and the director of ACCURATE, A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections, funded by the National Science Foundation. Dill founded Verified Voting.

Update: HJ Affleck of FIPR points to a Washington Post story on the report.

Congress challenge Bush claim that he can ignore law

The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, believes the Bush administration has been abusing its power.

"Bush's signing statement in March on Congress's renewal of the Patriot Act riled Specter and others who labored for months to craft a compromise between Senate and House versions, and what the White House wanted. Reluctantly, the administration relented on its objections to new congressional oversight of the way the FBI searches for terrorists.

Bush signed the bill with much flag-waving fanfare. Then he issued a signing statement asserting his right to bypass the oversight provisions in certain circumstances."

The committee is holding a hearing today asking administration officials to explain their justification for signing statements and other controversial and arguably illegal practices like the NSA warrantless wiretapping.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Bush is listening

I smiled at this, which is doing the rounds but I don't know the original source, which I'd be happy to point to if someone can let me know.

Sustainable Monoculture? No, thanks!

GRAIN (NGO focussed on sustainable management and biodiversity) have published a new report criticising corporate blinkers regarding sustainable monocultures.

""Sustainable development" has always been a chameleon-like concept, easily used to mystify environmental destruction. Agribusiness has a particularly talent for such greenwashing. Its latest trick is to present industrial monocultures as sustainable. Today such corporate-backed projects are popping up across the world, ranging from “sustainable palm oil plantations” to “sustainable salmon farms”. This is only to be expected from agribusiness. But what is more disturbing however is that NGOs and farmers’ groups are also participating in these corporate projects.

This Against the grain takes a critical look at some of these projects and the new disguises, new players and new language that they utilise for the same old purpose of turning our food and biodiversity into global commodities."

It mights a valid point about the misappropriation of the variations on the word "sustainable" and what sustainability should mean.

"Sustainability is meaningless unless it is rooted in a basic respect for the lives of communities and their surroundings. Industrial, commodity-producing monocultures are entirely devoid of such respect. Thus we see that sustainable monoculture projects are always conceived and defined by those who hold the economic power. They are therefore always geared towards export-oriented agribusiness commodity production, which inevitably displaces local food production with industrial or feed crops that have little to do with community needs. In this manner the projects contribute to tearing the social fabric of solidarity, exchange and self-regulation at the core of local food systems, leaving people to depend on the “market” for their food supply. In these industrial agriculture projects there is no room for peasants and their food and agricultural systems.

Monocultures also, by definition, defy diversity—another critical element to sustainability. No matter how hard they try to regulate or “enhance” themselves, they will always have irreparable impacts on peoples, ecosystems and the soil. Globally, this narrowing down of the planet’s food supply to a few monocultures, relying on an extremely narrow genetic base of genetically modified and patented seeds, raises dire and unpredictable risks for the global food system, especially for the world 's poor."

WIPO Development agenda talks

WIPO is holding the final round of talks on establishing a WIPO Development Agenda. EFF staff are taking notes.

"This week WIPO is holding the final round of talks on establishing a WIPO Development Agenda. The WIPO Development Agenda offers the possibility of creating global intellectual property laws that balance rightsholders' interests with the human rights of the world's citizens for access to medicine and knowledge. The scope of proposals on the table is truly amazing. WIPO is being asked to create ways to protect the Public Domain and to rebalance its technical assistance to developing countries. But so far, the talks have been marred by procedural stalling and little agreement on specifics. Now it's crunch time. In the next five short days, WIPO member states have to come up with concrete recommendations for the September WIPO General Assembly."

Monday, June 26, 2006

NYT accused of treason

The New York Times has been accused of "treasonous" behaviour by republican congressman Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security committee. He's demanding that the Justice Department prosecute everyone at the NYT involved in reporting the fact that US intelligence have been secretly data mining international banking transactions.

Update: Jack Balkan thinks "The Administration has misled the American people so often about matters of national security that it is hard to trust it even and especially when it complains the most loudly; it has repeatedly disclosed secret information for political ends unrelated to national security, while employing the rhetoric of national security to avoid political embarrassment. If people now view the Administration's current complaints against the press with skepticism, it has no one but itself to blame. This is truly the Administration that cried wolf."

Data brokers and buyers take the fifth

Companies involved in buying and selling the personal details of tens of millions of Americans got on the wrong side of a congressional hearing last week. The Washington Post reports that the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee

"subpoenaed representatives from 11 companies that use the Internet and phone calls to obtain, market, and sell personal data, but they refused to talk.

All invoked their constitutional right to not incriminate themselves when asked whether they sold "personal, non-public information" that had been obtained by lying or impersonating someone."

Ironic, as one Republican said, that people who cheat and lie to obtain personal details are complaining that they are unable to do so in private.

Cameron and the foreign Human Rights Act

The spectacle of David Cameron abusing the Human Rights Act over the weekend would have been laughable if it wasn't so serious. It's a ridiculous notion that what is wrong with the Act is that it is really "foreign" because it is just the European Convention on Human Rights in disguise and what we really need is a pureblood British version. Some spin doctor probably dreamed this one up in an attempt to differentiate the Conservative brand from the New Labour brand but labelling the Convention as a dirty, polluting, foreign object is slightly undermined by the fact that it was, as Richard Allan points out, largely drafted by British lawyers.

Cameron is playing into the government's hands by accepting that the Human Rights Act is 'the problem' interfering with the effective handling of difficult criminal justice and terrorism cases, rather than, as the judge in the Afghan hijackers'case said, conspicuous "abuse of power" on the part of government and "whether the executive should be required to take such action within the law as laid down by Parliament and the courts."

Felten on 21st century wiretapping

Ed Felten's final post (number 9) in his series about 21st century wiretapping is up.

"The infrastructure of content-triggered wiretaps is the infrastructure of a police state. We don’t live in a police state, but we should worry about building police state infrastructure. To make matters worse, I don’t see any technological way to limit such a system to justified uses. Our only real protections would be oversight and the threat of legal sanctions against abusers.

To sum up, the problem with content-triggered wiretaps is not that they are bad policy by themselves. The problem is that doing them requires some very dangerous infrastructure.

Given this, I think the burden should be on the advocates of content-triggered wiretaps to demonstrate that they are worth the risk. I won’t be convinced by hypotheticals, even vaguely plausible ones. I won’t be convinced, either, by vague hindsight claims that such wiretaps coulda-woulda-shoulda captured some specific badguy. I’m willing to be convinced, but you’ll have to show me some evidence. "

Jesus Is Not a Republican

Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College, and an evangelical christian, thinks that the machiavellian political machinations of the religious right in the US undermine the basic Christian beliefs they profess to hold. (Brian Tamanaha has posted extended extracts at Balkanisation). On torture, for example,

"Following the revelations that the U.S. government exported prisoners to nations that have no scruples about the use of torture, I wrote to several prominent religious-right organizations. Please send me, I asked, a copy of your organization's position on the administration's use of torture. Surely, I thought, this is one issue that would allow the religious right to demonstrate its independence from the administration, for surely no one who calls himself a child of God or who professes to hear "fetal screams" could possibly countenance the use of torture. Although I didn't really expect that the religious right would climb out of the Republican Party's cozy bed over the torture of human beings, I thought perhaps they might poke out a foot and maybe wiggle a toe or two.

I was wrong. Of the eight religious-right organizations I contacted, only two, the Family Research Council and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, answered my query. Both were eager to defend administration policies...

I'm sorry, but the use of torture under any circumstances is a moral issue, not a public-relations dilemma.

And what about abortion, the issue that the religious right decided in the early 1980s was its signature concern? Since January 2003, the Republican and religious-right coalition has controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress — yet, curiously, it has not tried to outlaw abortion. Why? Could it be that its members are less interested in actually reducing the incidence of abortion itself (in which case they should seek to alter public opinion on the matter) than in continuing to use abortion as a potent political weapon?"

Watch out for the reaction of the religious right's pr machine, as Balmer will be villified as a traitor and all sorts of other things, no doubt. Very Christian behaviour?

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Latest UK Net libel case

The latest Internet libel case in the UK courts is Al Amoudi v Brisard and JCB Consulting International SARL [2006] EWHC 1062 (QB), which was decided last month in the High Court. I've been meaning to read it in detail and put a note here but thankfully Lilian Edwards has already posted the key elements of the decision on her newly named 'PanGloss' blog, so I can just refer readers there. Mr Justice Gray decided that Al Amoudi had not proved "substantial publication" of the alleged libellous statements in the UK. Given the severity of UK libel law and its attraction for litigants from all over the world this, along with the Jameel case last year, is another important step in the right direction in damping down the enthusiasm of jurisdiction shopping Net libel litigants.

Update: The Jameel case is being appealed to the House of Lords and due to be heard on the 26th June.