Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The coaltion and computers

The Institute for Advanced Legal Studies recently launched their Centre for Law and Information Policy.

The ever entertaining and informative Daithí MacSíthigh opened proceedings, with a look at the UK coalition government's record over the past 5 years.

They have mostly had a domestic legislation focus. There is a perception that they engaged with technology issues but 5 years on they are looking pretty old and grey. Of the 130 Acts of Parliament adopted since 2010 there are only a few in the tech policy arena.

Daithí suggested three ways to think of this limited degree of regulation - rollback, re-balancing and re-regulation.


ID cards were repealed with the Identity Documents Act 2010.

The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 had something to say about CCTV, DNA retention and RIPA amongst other things. Daithí didn't mention it but this Act has little known provision, s26(5), which I highly recommend every child in the country, based at schools unconscionably collecting biometric data, exploit to its absolute maximum effect:
26 Requirement to notify and obtain consent before processing biometric information
(5) But if, at any time, the child—

(a) refuses to participate in, or continue to participate in, anything that involves the processing of the child’s biometric information, or

(b) otherwise objects to the processing of that information,

the relevant authority must ensure that the information is not processed, irrespective of any consent given by a parent of the child under subsection (3).
So calling all teens - how would you like to annoy your teachers and possibly even parents and simultaneously strike a major blow against the sickening normalisation of the unethical mass collection of kids' biometrics in schools? Roll out section 26(5), get your mates together and opt out of your school fingerprint (or other biometric) collection systems. Tell your headteachers you are not numbers to be processed and you refuse to participate, any longer, in school schemes that are undermining the fundamental rights of yours and future generations.

The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 was a bit of a mongrel covering a range of disparate issues and apparently included some amendments to the Wireless Telegraphy Act.

In the rollback box there is also some interesting unfinished business relating to the promised repeal of sections 17 and 18 of the Digital Economy Act 2010.


The Defamation Act 2013 introduced a series of revisions considered pro-defendant including a single publication rule, restrictions on jurisdiction shopping and a fourth type of intermediary protection. That made the tech and media industries happy.

On the intellectual property front, in the summer and autumn of 2014 a series of changes, including recognition of exceptions for parody, format shifting and quotation, were made by statutory instrument to implement parts of the Hargreaves Report. The entertainment industry were not best pleased with the changes and have engaged an expensive collection of m'learned friends in an attempt to quash the private copying changes under a judicial review. Oh yes. Judicial review is still available to those wealthy few who can afford it.

In the recently passed Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 there is a provision to set up a Privacy and Civil Liberties Board (not to mention the appalling McCarthyite section 26 "prevent" duty)


In terms of re-regulation the abomination that is the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 was rushed through Parliament in the week before MPs went off for their summer holidays.

Having sung lalala with their fingers in their ears for months, following the abolition of the data retention directive by the Court of Justice of the European Union, DRIPA was the government's panicked "something must be done" response and its reach was extended to MAC addresses in section 21 of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act, 2015.

Elsewhere on what Daithí was labelling re-regulation, powers of censorship  and online gambling provisions have been extended. And one of the coalition's final provisions is the revenge porn measures in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act. Sections 33-35 are not exactly exemplars of legislative clarity and were passed with no evidence and no scrutiny.

The digital goods add on to the Consumer Rights Bill is still working its way through Parliament.

Big Projects

The final string to the coalition's tech bow was outwith the legislative bandwagon. They don't want to use legislation too readily after all, since it could be seen as at odds with their aim to reduce bureaucracy.

Their big big project is, of course, big data, wherever they can get it.

The Health and Social Care Act 2012 is enabling them to wreak all kinds of ignorant havoc with medical confidentiality, for example. Ross Anderson, only last week described the Hospital Episode Statistics data warehouse and the horrendous programme as residing in the 7th circle of hell, as far as lack of respect for medical confidentiality and privacy is concerned.

Whilst I'm mentioning Ross, could I also highly recommend the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report of which he is a joint author, The collection, linking and use of data in biomedical research and health care:ethical issues. Ross neatly sums up;
As the information we gave to our doctors in private to help them treat us is now collected and treated as an industrial raw material, there has been scandal after scandal. From failures of anonymisation through unethical sales to the catastrophe, things just seem to get worse. Where is it all going, and what must a medical data user do to behave ethically?
We put forward four principles. First, respect persons; do not treat their confidential data like were coal or bauxite. Second, respect established human-rights and data-protection law, rather than trying to find ways round it. Third, consult people who’ll be affected or who have morally relevant interests. And fourth, tell them what you’ve done – including errors and security breaches.
The coalition's other big project was tax relief for the video games industry. Needless to say, the industry approved. So popular was it that the government decided to extend a similar provision to theatres.

Finally, hugely unwelcome all around parliament, Leveson landed upon the government and the effects are still unclear.


Daithí's conclusions on all this brought us back to where he started. The coalition began with some promising promises on technology and civil liberties but it proved all too easy for them to talk in libertarian soundbites on the outside, then quickly succumb to the temptations of power. He was more generous than I would have been in describing the coalition as looking merely old and grey.

Their consolidation and expansion of the mass surveillance agenda and practices (Daithí didn't mention the Snowden affair but I'm sure would have done if time had allowed) and the government's entrenched view of UK residents as industrial raw material, as Ross Anderson so eloquently puts it, to be mined for the response to whatever stick the rabid 24 hour news media are currently beating the government over the head with, will do untold damage to fundamental rights for generations to come.

Update: I expect Daithí would also have included a treatise on the Justice and Security Act 2013 (including reinforcement of secret courts and secret "evidence") and the decimation of legal aid, if he'd had the chance.