Friday, January 13, 2006

Blears Ideal Government further comments

There have been some further interesting comments on Home Office minister Hazel Blears defence of data retention at the Ideal Government blog. Ms Blears used an example of the rescue of a kidnap and torture victim as a good reason for needing the regulations.

Comment 21 provides a counter example of where things can go wrong, with an innocent Duch woman getting wrongly arrested for allegedly sending threatening messages to a celebrity.

"For every example of law enforcement, intelligence or others using traffic data “for good” there are examples of its use going terribly wrong. These simply haven’t been heard in the limited debate.
I like to point to the example (dutch: of a Dutch woman who was arrested early in the morning by six police officers at her home. A threatening E-mail was supposedly send to a celebrity from a phone for which her name was apparently in the billing records. During the interview that follows after many hours in a police cell she keeps her cool. After a long talk the investigating officer finally confronts her with the “evidence”. A piece of paper with her name, a phone number and the address where she lived ten years ago (but wasn’t picked up early in the morning). She quickly points out that she never had a phone with that number or from that provider. She manages to figure out that here personal detail might have been used by someone who stole her car and papers a couple of years back.

The investigating police officer lets her wait while he “checks her story”. Later he lets her go “based on her background, appearance and education”.. which begs the question? what would have happened if she had another skin color, was just laid of and/or went to a different school? It turned out the police had mistaken the pre-paid phone for one for which a contract was signed with a billing address. Even then the bills wouldn’t have been paid at a decade old address, which isn`t where they picked her up…

But that just an unlucky example from which no conclusion can be drawn right? No one in the debate took the time to realise why this is an important example regardless of which side you are on..

What if the sender of the threat had really hurt the target of the threatening e-mail?

Would the perpetrator have framed an innocent person, or would a defence attorney successfully explain the police the difference between a phone number and a social security number thus cutting the legs from underneath any future attempts to use traffic data (collected at billion Euro costs Europe wide) as evidence in a court of law? What about organisations that don’t haul people in for questioning but just start spying on a person?

But you can ask whether one would want legislation passed based on a few examples that supposedly demonstrate usefulness anyway. In my opinion its a shame that legislation that initially demanded colossal changes to the huge multi-billion Euro communication infrastructure was allowed to pass without any research into the usefulness, cost or or impact of the legislation. (Asking the people that came up with this plan to try and prove who send them an offer for products that can “enhance” various body parts should adequately demonstrate that E-mail protocols aren’t designed for this.)

Would the EU ever pass environmental legislation without at least considering a serious impact study?"

Hard cases make bad law and there is way too much reactive legislating going on, off the back of a few high media profile shocking events. In the wake of terrible tragedies there is always an emotional clamour to 'do something' to 'ensure it never happens again' and the thing that governments can do most visibly, in order that they can be seen to be acting, is to change the law in some way. There is an intense focus on the terrible event and an almost complete lack of awareness of the real probability of its occurrence.

3000 people die on UK roads every year but there would be complete outrage if the government introduced a blanket speed limit of 10 miles per hour. By comparison the chances of getting caught up in a terrorist atrocity are negligible. The consequences of getting caught in road accidents or terrorist events are roughly equivalent - death or serious injury. Yet we focus far more fear, media and legislative attention on the hugely less likely scenario. I sincerely hope it never comes anywhere close to reality in this country but if terrorist atrocities were as common as road traffic accidents, as sadly they are in some parts of the world, I suspect we'd pay them about as much attention.

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