Saturday, January 11, 2014

Thoughts on BBC failure on Snowden

Adrian Chiles is an affable broadcaster who now works for the BBC and ITV. He does the Drive programme on BBC Radio 5 Live on a Friday. I happened to catch a bit of it on the way home from work yesterday evening, just as he was introducing Myles Allen, Geosystem Science Professor and Head of the Climate Dynamics group at Oxford University's Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics Department.

The short extract from the programme is worth listening to (before it gets timed out on the BBC iPlayer). It is one illustration of the low level of understanding BBC presenters seem to have of science and technology.

The segment begins a little over 2 hours in at  2:11:24. Mr Chiles was friendly as always. Prof Allen was engaging and informative but it sounded to me that the presenter was not really following him too well. In fairness to Mr Chiles, unlike many of his colleagues who determinedly and rudely cut people off and paint the world in simplistic "balanced" extremes, he did his best to listen, ask questions and give the good professor the opportunity to make his points. Mr Chiles then closed by deciding he's going to get a tractor to deal with the bad weather.

I use this example not to criticise Mr Chiles in particular - he's a terrific broadcaster who does his job really well, particularly on the sports end of his varied portfolio - but because in spite of his difficulty in following the argument he, at least, made an effort. Many of his colleagues use straw men, sarcasm, the god of "balance", attack the messenger and/or a variety of other tactics to cover their low level understanding of or lack of interest in science; some even boast and cheer about that ignorance.

However, in an information age, the scientific, technological and mathematical ignorance of mainstream public service broadcast and print journalists presents a significant democratic deficit.

The 4th Estate is supposed to talk truth to power and provide a check on the branches of government and hopefully help prevent them getting out of control. Well parts of the US and UK government are out of control.

Edward Snowden has revealed the levers of power are being wielded in secret to engage in suspicionless mass surveillance of entire populations, via complex modern technologies. Also that the political hierarchy in charge of this activity have been dangerously clueless about the mass surveillance infrastructure they have funded, constructed and facilitated.

If the journalists tasked with holding these people to account don't understand the science, technology or mathematics then they cannot do their job with any degree of credibility. IMHO the BBC has largely failed in its public duty to report on the Snowden affair with any degree of credibility. The poor scientific and technical background of many of their mainstream presenters will have been a contributory factor in this failure.

The latest from the NSA is that they now seem to be admitting (in spite of previous claims that this mass surveillance stopped 54 major terror attacks it didn't really stop any, but may possibly have provided secondary supportive evidence in relation to one) that the best argument they can come up with is mass data collection might be useful as an "insurance policy". What?! An insurance policy?! The infrastructure of mass surveillance might be useful in the future, somehow, to someone?

Who? Why? When? How? What? Where? Those six honest serving men serve pretty well in the science and technology arena too. BBC presenters might like to take note.

Opt out of NHS data grab before it's too late

The inimitable Ross Anderson, Professor in Security Engineering at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, has succinctly pointed out the importance of opting out of the latest NHS data grab before it is too late. I hope he won't mind me reproducing his advice here in full:
"The next three weeks will see a leaflet drop on over 20 million households. NHS England plans to start uploading your GP records in March or April to a central system, from which they will be sold to a wide range of medical and other research organisations. European data-protection and human-rights laws demand that we be able to opt out of such things, so the Information Commissioner has told the NHS to inform you of your right to opt out.
Needless to say, their official leaflet is designed to cause as few people to opt out as possible. It should really have been drafted like this. (There’s a copy of the official leaflet at the website.) But even if it had been, the process still won’t meet the consent requirements of human-rights law as it won’t be sent to every patient. One of your housemates could throw it away as junk before you see it, and if you’ve opted out of junk mail you won’t get a leaflet at all.
Yet if you don’t opt out in the next few weeks your data will be uploaded to central systems and you will not be able to get it deleted, ever. If you don’t opt out your kids in the next few weeks the same will happen to their data, and they will not be able to get their data deleted even if they decide they prefer privacy once they come of age. If you opted out of the Summary Care Record in 2009, that doesn’t count; despite a ministerial assurance to the contrary, you now need to opt out all over again. For further information see the website of GP Neil Bhatia (who drafted our more truthful leaflet) and previous LBT posts on medical privacy."

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Foreign & Commonwealth Office Minister of State, Hugh Robertson, response on oversight of security services

My MP, Nicola Blackwood, has had a reply from Foreign & Commonwealth Office Minister of State, Hugh Robertson, to her letter "to the Foreign Secretary, on behalf of a number of your constituents, about concerns about oversight of the security services". Mr Robertson describes himself as "the minister responsible for this issue."  I wrote to Ms Blackwood about the Snowden affair in October and briefly again in December when she got back to me.

Copy of Mr Robertson's letter to Ms Blackwood here. (Update: I've removed the embedded copy of the letter from this post because of the irritating glitch in Blogger/ Google Drive that causes the homepage to jump to the Drive pdf insert).

In summary, Mr Robertson's response states "it is the longstanding policy of successive British Governments not to comment on intelligence matters" but that he would like to draw our attention to -
  • the statement the Foreign Secretary made to Parliament on 10 June
  • the Intelligence & Security Committee (ISC) statement of 17 July saying the initial NSA/Prisrn allegations were unfounded
  • the ISC press release of 17 October saying they intended to do further work
  • Home Office minister James Brokenshire's statement in the parliamentary debate of 31 October saying we should be proud of UK oversight of intelligence agencies 
  • a link to the Hansard transcript of the debate 
Seriously? Six months on and the best the UK government can do is -
  • We don't comment on intelligence matters
  • All praise William Hague
  • There's nothing to see here, move along
  • We'll check the law anyway
  • We had a chat about it and the minister said we should be proud and here's the web link to prove it
So though I would thank Mr Robertson for taking the time to write to Ms Blackwood in relation to the concerns I raised with her, I would note, for the record, that his letter provides no reassurance on any of the fundamental issues at play here.  The one positive thing to come out of this non-response from the minister is that a number of Ms Blackwood's constituents (plural), not just this lone academic, have been concerned enough to contact her about untrammeled mass electronic surveillance.

(The helpful link provided by Mr Robertson to the parliamentary debate of 31 October would suggest that he is not, unsurprisingly perhaps, a B2fxxx reader; not, at least, of the three relatively long posts on this blog on that debate)