Friday, May 02, 2008

Corner House & CAAT v SFO on BAe-Saudi Corruption heads for House of Lords

The High Court has given the Serious Fraud Office permission to appeal to the House of Lords in the case brought by The Corner House and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade relating to the SFO decision to drop the BAe-Saudi arms sales corruption enquiry.

In their judgement in the High Court on 10th April, Lord Justice Moses and Mr Justice Sullivan severely criticised the SFO's and the government's stance in the affair. From the Corner House:

"The High Court has formally quashed the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) decision to drop its corruption investigation into arms deals between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia. This follows the Court's ruling on 10th April that the Director of the SFO, acting on government advice, acted unlawfully in stopping its BAE-Saudi corruption investigation in December 2006.

The High Court also gave the SFO permission to appeal to the House of Lords, the UK's highest court, against their ruling of 10th April. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and The Corner House, which sought the judicial review of the SFO decision, did not oppose this, because of the public importance of the legal issues raised, but all parties acknowledged that the SFO had not identified any errors in law in the judgment itself.

In granting the appeal, Lord Justice Moses said "This is a paradigm case . . . that relates to the way this country is governed and to basic constitutional principles."

The judges ordered the SFO to pay the costs of the judicial review so far (capped and agreed in January 2008) and, recognising the public service that The Corner House and CAAT are performing, also ordered the SFO to pay all reasonable costs of the appeal, regardless of the outcome, "win, lose or draw."

A joint press release gives more detail about the quashing and the appeal."

Security through fingerprint sensors on laptops: think about it...

Kim Cameron got a new laptop a few weeks ago with a fingerprint security sensor on it.

"A couple of days later, I was at a conference and on stage under pretty bright lights. Glancing down at my shiny new computer, I saw what looked unmistakably like a fingerprint on my laptop’s right mouse button. Then it occurred to me that the fingerprint sensor was only a quarter of an inch from what seemed to be a perfect image of my fingerprint. How secure is that?"

Kim got a colleague at the conference to take a photo of the fingerprint to see if it was usable and was shocked to find that it was (see the original post for the excellent photos). Kim says:
"The net of all of this was to drive home, yet again, just how silly it is to use a “public” secret to identify someone. What kind of a lock was this? It was a lock which conveniently offered any thief the key.

At first my mind boggled at the fact that Toshiba would supply mouse buttons that were such excellent fingerprint collection devices. But then I realized that even if the fingerprint weren’t conveniently stored on the mouse button, it would be easy to find it somewhere on the laptop’s surface.

It hit me that in the age of digital photography, a properly motivated photographer could probably find fingerprints on all kinds of surfaces, and capture them as expertly as Dale did. I realized it was no longer necessary to use special powder or inks or tape or whatever. Fingerprints have become a thing of “sousveillance”."

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Swedish Offentlighetsprincipen

Thanks to David Gerard via the ORG list for for alerting me to the Finnish-Swedish Offentlighetsprincipen in the context of the EU Commission's proposals to change the rules regarding public access to EU documents. The 1996 newsgroup posting by Jon Noring that David refers to has a full explanation of the almost sacred Swedish constitutional principle relating to freedom of access to public documents.

"Swedish law has a legal principle called "Offentlighetsprincip". I've enclosed an edited private e-mail from a Swedish individual (not Zenon, and who prefers to remain anonymous), wherein it describes "offentlighetsprincip". It's an amazing principle...

The offentlighetsprincip is divided in two parts: the right for whoever it
may be, to be present as listener at court and other public proceedings. The
rule is from the 15th century, and is of course no oddity at all. Most legal
systems state the same. But the other part is it: the right, whomever it may
be, to anonymously and without giving any reason, "immediately and on the
spot" read public papers in courts and federal and municipal agencies, and
get copies, and publish them irrespective of the wishes of the original

The offentlighetsprincip is part of the constitution of the Kingdom of
Sweden. It has been since 1766; thus the offentlighetsprincip for public
papers is 22 years older than the US constitution. But as Sweden has
prefered to rewrite instead of using amendments, it has since been rewritten
in 1774, 1809, 1946 and 1976. There is of course also elaborate rules, a
thick law, when public papers must be classified. But the basic principles
from 1766 have never been changed. And when the computers came, data
information became as public as information on paper.

The offentlighetsprincip is divided in two parts: the right for whoever it
may be, to be present as listener at court and other public proceedings. The
rule is from the 15th century, and is of course no oddity at all. Most legal
systems state the same. But the other part is it: the right, whomever it may
be, to anonymously and without giving any reason, "immediately and on the
spot" read public papers in courts and federal and municipal agencies, and
get copies, and publish them irrespective of the wishes of the original

The offentlighetsprincip is part of the constitution of the Kingdom of
Sweden. It has been since 1766; thus the offentlighetsprincip for public
papers is 22 years older than the US constitution. But as Sweden has
prefered to rewrite instead of using amendments, it has since been rewritten
in 1774, 1809, 1946 and 1976. There is of course also elaborate rules, a
thick law, when public papers must be classified. But the basic principles
from 1766 have never been changed. And when the computers came, data
information became as public as information on paper...

And why is the offentlighetsprincip revered by even the poorest citizens?
Because in other countries the journalists are depending on leaks, but when
a whole group of politicians, judges or bureaucrats all are corrupt, there
aren't any. But in Sweden all journalists, it's part of their professional
pride, dig up the facts nevertheless...

With such an effectivness, the offentlighetsprincip is of course hated,
hated, hated among politicians and bureaucrats, but they can't even show the
slightest hint of that opinion, beause in that case, they won't be
reelected. It would be a political suicide."

Read the whole post. Can you imagine, for example, the Speaker of the House of Commons pursuing a court case to keep details of his and other MPs expenses private if such a revered constitutional principle existed in the UK?

People of Lesbos sue Lesbians over name

From AP via Findlaw:
"A Greek court has been asked to draw the line between the natives of the Aegean Sea island of Lesbos and the world's gay women.

Three islanders from Lesbos - home of the ancient poet Sappho, who praised love between women - have taken a gay rights group to court for using the word lesbian in its name.
One of the plaintiffs said Wednesday that the name of the association, Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece, "insults the identity" of the people of Lesbos, who are also known as Lesbians.

"My sister can't say she is a Lesbian," said Dimitris Lambrou. "Our geographical designation has been usurped by certain ladies who have no connection whatsoever with Lesbos," he said."

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

How scanners and PCs will choose London's mayor

The Register is raising concerns about the electronic vote counting for the London mayoral election.

But despite all the changes, there are still those who are concerned that introducing technology into the voting process risks compromising the integrity of the vote. One such campaigner is Rebecca Mercuri, an American expert on electronic voting and counting systems.

She is worried that equipment provided by companies with little or no experience in elections could fail to provide an accurate count because of an unintentional design flaw. She cites the example of a US election where the counting system reached a certain number, and then started counting backwards.

"It's not that easy to design [a well planned counting system]," she told us.

But Bennet says he's confident that the machines will return a result that accurately reflects the will of the people, simply because of the huge volumes of test papers that have been scanned. Over the last 18 months, almost one million ballot papers have been counted on test runs, and Bennet is so sure of his system that he is prepared to claim the machines are more accurate than people.

"When we've had to do recounts because of a discrepancy between the machine and manual counts, it has always turned out that the machines are right and the people have made a mistake," he told us.

But Mercuri questions Bennet's confidence in the voting machines. Testing, she says, is only good at spotting the problems that can be forseen. Optical scanners in the US were rejecting ballots that had been marked with gel-ink pens, for example, but this wasn't picked up in testing because no one was looking for it. Only low vote totals alerted officials to the problem.

Pre-election testing is also no good at spotting machines that develop a fault, or have been compromised on the day. It might be possible, Mercuri contends, for a hidden piece of code to be activated, or for a machine to be subverted by scanning a particular bitmap image, or even by an engineer pressing a particular sequence of keys. These so-called Easter eggs are common in electronic equipment, she says, as manufacturers commonly install them to allow engineers access to configuration or diagnostic settings...

Bennet says that such an audit would be "meaningless" and bad for voter confidence. This is because the rules that govern the counting procedure do not allow for both a manual and electronic count...

"We could do a sample manual recount, but if it turned up a problem, we wouldn't be able to do anything about it, which would be the quickest way to collapse voter confidence in the result," Bennet told us.

This is an anathema to campaigners like Mercuri. "The law should always include some percentage of manual audit and there always must be a way that a problem with the check should trigger an investigation, possibly resulting in the discarding of the electronic totals.

And she is not the only one who thinks the electronic count should be audited. Becky Hogge, executive director of the Open Rights Group, says that ORG is campaigning for the law to be changed to make a manual recount of a statistically significant sample to be mandatory in all electronically counted elections."

PIJIP 301 Watch

The Programme on Information Justice and Intellectual Property (PIJIP) at American Univerisity is "creating a new project to analyze US bilateral trade pressures against countries perceived to have inadequate intellectual property protection." They have produced a Snapshot of Industry Influence on the 2008 Special 301 Report (pdf).

The degree of apparent influence is unsurprising since the US Trade Representative's office, tasked with producing the section 301 report, has no resources to do the necessary empirical research and has since the beginning relied on outside sources - mainly the IP industries - to supply data. Peter Drahos and John Braitwaite outline the story of the mutual interdependence of the USTR and the IIPA in particular in their terrific book, Information Feudalism: Who Owns the Knowledge Economy.

The PIJIP folks in looking at the 2008 report note:

" Most of the countries which the industry groups USTR to place in the
Special 301 Report are in it.
- 86% of the nations IIPA singled out are in the USTR report.[2]
- 75% of the nations PhRMA singled out are in the USTR report. [3]"

The tables summarising the comparisons are available at the PIJIP wewbsite.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Cheaper school texts for Indonesia

A government minister in Indonesia, it seems, is intent on making school text books more accessible.
"How do you make school textbooks cheaper? The government has turned to a combination of old traditions and modern technology to beat book prices, considered one of the sources for the high cost of education in this country. Let's hope it works.

The new book policy, introduced in 2005 but for some reason still not widely known to the public, involves lengthening the shelf life of a book to a minimum of five years, buying up the copyrights of as many school textbooks as the government can afford and uploading them in digital form to the Internet and making them available for free download to those who need them.

National Education Minister Bambang Sudibyo, who explained the policy at a news conference on Friday, acknowledged there are bound to be winners and losers as a result of any new policy. In the case of the new book policy, the winners are parents and students through cheaper books. The biggest losers are book publishers and bureaucrats at the National Education Ministry who for years have colluded to make book prices expensive.

"There isn't going to be any monopoly over school textbooks. There isn't even going to be oligopolies," the minister said.

Extending the life of school textbooks to five years from the present one year would mean that books could be passed down to younger siblings, donated to poor families or sold to secondhand bookstores. The policy would also revive used textbook markets around the country."

Thanks to Vera Franz via the A2K list for the link.

Rowntree repro

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust yesterday published a report entitled "On the Purity of Elections in the UK: Causes for Concern" The key findings are listed in the executive summary:

"• Experienced election observers have raised serious concerns about how well UK election
procedures measure up to international standards.
• There have been at least 42 convictions for electoral fraud in the UK in the period
• Greater use of postal voting has made UK elections far more vulnerable to fraud and
resulted in several instances of large-scale fraud.
• There is widespread, and justifiable, concern about both the comprehensiveness and the
accuracy of the UK’s electoral registers – the poor state of the registers potentially
compromises the integrity of the ballot.
• There is a genuine risk of electoral integrity being threatened by previously robust
systems of electoral administration having reached ‘breaking point’ as a result of
pressures imposed in recent years.
• Public confidence in the electoral process in the UK was the lowest in Western Europe in
1997, and has almost certainly declined further as a result of the extension of postal
• The benefits of postal and electronic voting have been exaggerated, particularly in
relation to claims about increased turnout and social inclusion.
• There is substantial evidence to suggest that money can have a powerful impact on the
outcome of general elections, particularly where targeted at marginal constituencies
over sustained periods of time.
• Outside of ministerial circles, there is a widespread view that a fundamental overhaul of
UK electoral law, administration and policy is urgently required."

And the conclusions:
"The relative lack of research into electoral processes in theUK, particularly prior to 2000, is striking.
In particular, it would appear that the previously widespread assumption that British elections
were ‘free and fair’ has meant that there has effectively been no research on electoral
malpractice in the UK (Stewart, 2006).Moreover, despite the enormous volume, and high quality,
of research conducted and commissioned by the Electoral Commission since 2000, significant
areas of the evidence base remains virtually non-existent. This dearth of research has
constituted a major failing in the context of rapidly changing electoral policy in the UK. All too
often, genuine concerns have been dismissed on the basis that there is ‘no evidence’ to underpin
the claims beingmade or that the only evidence available ismerely anecdotal. In actual fact,
the evidence base is arguably too deficient to establish anything other than ‘working hypotheses’
about a number of key issues such as the state of the electoral registers or trends in electoral
malpractice in the UK.

While there is no hard evidence suggesting a significant increase in electoral malpractice since
2000, the extension of postal voting has significantly enhanced the vulnerability of UK elections
to large-scale fraud. It is equally clear that absentee voting of any form significantly
increases the risk of fraud and the scale of fraud that it potentially possible. The Birmingham election
court of 2005 demonstrates that the control of a major city council or the outcome of a parliamentary
contest could be influenced by the scale of fraud that was rendered possible by postal
voting. Electoral legislation has had to play ‘catch up’ with this reality in recent years, although
there is widespread agreement that the provisions introduced by the Electoral Administration
Act 2006 still fall short of what is required. As such, it is difficult to refute the view recently
expressed by the former Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the government
appears to be ‘in denial’ about the challenges to the integrity of UK elections.

Reforms introduced with the intention of raising turnout have,without doubt, dented public confidence
in the electoral system,which as already low by European standards. Instead of engaging with
such concerns, the government reiterated its determination in November 2007 to “further
develop our electoral modernisation strategy”, using existing legislative provisions and further
piloting of alternative electoral arrangements. It is the centrality of the concern to find a relatively
‘quick fix’ to the problem of declining turnouts, particularly among ministers, that has
caused such a variety of genuine concerns, and valid evidence, to be overlooked. Randall (2005,
p.409) has argued the consistent tendency to refute the validity of such concerns suggests that
“group think was apparent in the way in which the reform of the system was proposed, accepted
and adopted in the late 1990s”. Most significantly, the likelihood of such fraud occurring
could have been predicted on the basis of evidence of growing proxy vote fraud during the 1990s.

At the same time, there is an urgent need for all those involved in UK elections to accept that
the causes of low turnout are far more fundamental that the extent to which voting procedures
are ‘modern’ or ‘convenient’, although the role of such factors should not be dismissed entirely.
Ironically, however, some of the core reasons for declining turnout may well arise from the
patterns of party funding that have become clearer as a result of the requirements of PPERA
2000. In particular, emerging evidence points to the interplay between the ‘First Past the Post’
system of elections and the geographical contrasts in local campaign spending as a potentially
significant factor in explaining low turnout in many constituencies. Appendix A to this report
presents a brief case study of the 2005General Election on Merseyside,which highlights the possible
relationship between turnout and geographical variations in local campaign spending.
One of the most damaging legacies of these reforms has been their negative impact on electoral
administration. As the Electoral Commission (2007c) state: “in many areas of the UK we
have noted concerns that the current structure for the delivery of electoral administration is
close to breaking point and we believe it is insufficiently robust and coordinated to meet the
challenges of elections in the twenty-first century”. However, the extent to which these issues
have been considered seriously by ministers and civil servants is difficult to gauge. Certainly, it
would appear that little account was apparently taken of the fragile state of electoral administration
arrangements in the Prime Minister’s initial plans to call a snap general election. The
nature of the ‘lucky escape’ represented by the ‘General Election that never was’ is underpinned
by the fact that the conclusions reached in this report reinforce the findings of a number of recent
reviews and commentaries on British electoral procedures.As such, the recommendations of the
Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review of the work of the Electoral Commission, as well
as the Commission’s subsequent response to these recommendations, and to the Gould report
on the Scottish elections in 2007, provide at least part of the route map towards future reform.
The Electoral Commission has signalled its intention to lead a detailed review of the current legal
and policy frameworks for elections in the UK. This is a welcome initiative and, outside of ministerial
circles, there is widespread appetite for such a debate.

It would be presumptuous to seek to pre-empt the conclusions which may be reached by the
Electoral Commission’s review. However, in relation to legislative frameworks, the possibility
cannot be dismissed that root and branch reform of British electoral law and administration is
required, as opposed to further consolidation of legislation and administrative procedures originating
in the nineteenth century. The nature of this task may be less onerous than it would seem.
It has been widely noted in recent reviews of UK election procedures that many viable solutions
to the problems that have emerged in recent years are already in place in one part of the UK. In
parallel with the broader reviews of electoral processes in the UK carried out after Labour came
to power in 1997, separate reviews were undertaken examining the issues arising from the experience
of elections in Northern Ireland. These reviews included the report of the Northern Ireland
Affairs Select Committee (1998) on Electoral Malpractice in Northern Ireland and the Northern
Ireland Office’s (1998) report Administering Elections in Northern Ireland. These inquiries were
undertaken because of a widespread concern that, in contrast to the rest of the UK, electoral
malpractice remained widespread in Northern Ireland, despite the measures introduced in the
Elections (Northern Ireland) Act of 1985. Yet despite the widespread perception that electoral
malpractice was taking place in specific parts of the province, concrete evidence of fraud proved

Despite the lack of clear evidence, the Northern Ireland Select Committee took the view that it
was likely that electoralmalpractice was a serious problemin Northern Ireland and required the
introduction of urgent measures to minimise the scope for ‘vote stealing’. At the centre of this
analysis was a concern about the extent of inaccuracies in the electoral register, particularly the
‘inflation’ of the register throughmultiple and false entries. The Select Committee recommended
measures to improve the accuracy of electoral registers and tighter controls over absentee
voting in Northern Ireland. As a result, the provisions in the Representation of the People Act
2000 for absentee voting (postal voting on demand) and for electoral pilots were not extended
toNorthern Ireland. Instead, the recommendations of the Select Committeewere translated into
the 2001 White Paper ‘Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland’ and ultimately formed
the basis for the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002...

...over the past decade, electoral reforms introduced in Northern Ireland
have provided formore accurate electoral registers, strengthened the role of electoral administration,
sharply reduced accusations ofmalpractice, and raised public confidence in the electoral
process. Introducing the second reading of The Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill in the
House of Commons on 10 July 2001, Desmond Browne MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary
of State for Northern Ireland, justified the new measures in the following terms:

“There has been growing concern about the perceived level of electoral malpractice in Northern
Ireland. The Government have a commitment to protecting the right to free and fair elections.
Of course, electoral fraud is a crime. Electoral abuse is an affront to democracy and we are
determined to combat it wherever it occurs. If there is a high level of abuse, or even if people
only fear that that is the case, the democratic process will be under threat.We do not want voters
in Northern Ireland to become disillusioned with politics because they fear that elections
are unfair.” (Hansard, 10 July 2001, Column 688)

Seven years on, very few of those involved in administering elections in the UK would be likely
to quibble if the very same words were used to justify significant change to electoral law in the
rest of the country."

Meanwhile ORG will be monitoring the e-count at this weeks local and mayoral elections in London.

"The Open Rights Group (ORG) will send 30 official monitors to observe the elections for the mayor and members of the Greater London Assembly (GLA).

Under an agreement with the Electoral Commission and London Elects, which manages the election on behalf of the GLA, they will monitor polling stations, and activities at the three sites where the count will take place.

ORG opposes the introduction of electronic voting in UK elections, and recommends that all electronic counts be subject to a random manual audit on count day. In May of last year it monitored e-voting and e-counting in local elections in England and Scotland, following which it published a highly critical report."