Archive for December, 2004

Oh! An ID titbit

Having just bollocked Gerald Haworth for capitalising on the dead, I suspect I may be about to indulge in the same vice myself. Via Phil Carter, an interesting point relating to the explosion that slaughtered US soldiers in Mosul last week. Apparently Iraqis permitted to enter US Marine bases, as well as the citizens of Fallujah, are being registered in a biometric database and have their retinas scanned. Not that it kept the killer out of Forward Operating Base Marez, though.

This is a central issue in countering the idea that ID cards will make us safer. Biometrics tell you that a person is the same person who registered a particular set of details. They don’t tell you whether those details (called the biographical footprint) were accurate. They also don’t tell you what the database doesn’t record. Before any of this can help you arrest a terrorist, though, you need to know who you’re looking for – which set of details in the files is the one you’re after. First, catch your fish. You need to find out who is the enemy, before you can worry about who the enemy suspects are. This can only be done by investigative work. And if you have worthwhile evidence against them, you can charge them just as well under their assumed name anyway.



What the hell does Gerald Haworth, Conservative MP for Aldershot, think he’s doing with comments like this? It must take a very special degree of shameless self promotion to get a dig in at the government on the back of the drowning of some forty thousand people, just two days after the event. But he managed it, though. Apparently Jack Straw should “investigate” the Foreign Office’s “inadequate arrangements”.(link)

You’d think that if you were going to make a political point out of this, it would have to be good. But this is sad stuff. After all, they have been arranging to have locksmiths meet evacuation flights from Thailand for those evacuees who have lost the keys to their homes, so the scope is not fantastic. And was this the best he could really come up with: a self-investigation into why, if lots of people call the same telephone number, they may find it hard to get through. You’d have thought he could be making better use of his time – querying the bizarre suggestion that 3,000 British troops, many his constituents, might be sent to Darfur when they’re already meant to be going to Afghanistan, perhaps, or getting his local party to collect money for the victims.

Christmas Ceasefire

Just to let you know, the Ranter will observe its traditional Christmas ceasefire until some time on the 26th of December. That is all. Anyway, what would you be doing reading blogs on Christmas Day?

Well, only 93 MPs were willing to reject ID cards. Sad, really. But with the right encouragement they can do better. We have to be tough on deadbeat MPs and tough on the causes of deadbeat MPs. I’ll come back to this downblog.

Let’s recap. ID cards will force all of us to give up our privacy. ID cards will cost us all £85 in the first instance, and again every time we move house. ID cards will force us to report to the government when we move. The ID card monster database will record every time our cards are checked – as Charles Clarke wants us to have them checked every time we do things as trivial as renting videos, that means that we will be followed everywhere. Mr. Clarke thinks it will cost some £5.5 billion – but that’s without counting the card readers he wants to be in every video store. If you’re a business person, think – you are expected to buy the gear, and there is nothing to stop the government charging you to use the system. He also reckons the state loses £50 million a year through identity fraud. So – the monster database, even if it only costs what the government hopes it will, will take one hundred years to pay for itself.

Further on, the biometrics that are meant to make this system unbreakable are unproven. In Germany, a computer science student was able to fool iris scanners using nothing else but a photo of his eyes. Do you feel safer yet? The monster database will contain the key to all the records the government has on you, and any private ones that include your Citizen Reference Number. If anything goes wrong – that’s it. Safer? Only weeks ago, a civil servant at the DVLA was convicted of passing information from his huge database to real, actual terrorists – animal rights nuts this time, but who tomorrow? Safer? Other ID schemes the government have dreamed up include a monster database of everyone involved in education – including details of the income and employment of schoolchildren’s parents. Safer? Guess who invented that little beauty! None other than yer man, Charles Clarke. His civil servants say that this – a system capable of identifying us all by social class – can be bolted on to a national identity card. Safer? But Charlie isn’t terribly good at these things. Yesterday he claimed in the Commons that the new poll tax card and its monster database would offer “enormous practical benefits” to anyone who applies for credit, rents a video, or goes abroad on holiday.

Charlie doesn’t rent videos very often. Or he’d know that it isn’t really £5.5 billion difficult. Hell, my Blockbuster card is based on an out-of-date provisional Queensland motorcycle licence. Charlie probably doesn’t shop much either. Otherwise he’d know that department stores tend to offer store cards to pretty much anyone who pitches up at the checkout these days. But then, we’re talking about a fella who invited a young lady to his flat for coffee, vanished into the kitchen, and returned with the coffee and without his trousers. I think we can be pretty sure he sends a woman instead. As far as foreign travel goes, he obviously hasn’t read the ICAO biometric passport standard that, er, doesn’t include the biometrics he wants on our passports. And he obviously missed the bits of the brief that mentioned that the proposed ID card isn’t a travel document. So – what would swingvotery security moms Worcester Womaning off to holiday wintersun joy in Triangulationville, New Blairland actually need it for?

We have to be tolerant, of course. When his article in the Times appeared, with exactly the same points as his speech in, he’d only been Home Secretary for 24 hours. Of course he spent most of those scribbling a few well-turned pars for the Thunderer. Naturally. Only a terrible cynic would suggest that Home Office head of news John “Your marriage is over! Understand!” Tozer or someone like him might have penned the piece. No. Who can make themselves an instant expert in just 24 hours on such a huge portfolio?

But then, who could have the arrogance to plunge straight on with the biggest project their new department has ever taken on – despite evidently knowing little of it? Someone, perhaps, who doesn’t mind the fact that no British citizen has ever voted for it. The new poll tax was not in any party’s manifesto. Not this time, nor last time, nor the time before that. The Government has as good as committed to an election in the spring. It is therefore operating on the last few months of a mandate issued in the late spring of 2001, without any mention of ID cards. Why does Charles Clarke – who has had a good weekend to become an expert on data protection, network engineering, fraud investigation, security engineering, biometric identification, the constitutional ramifications, ICAO, video shops and more – feel he can dash into this and get it off before the election?

Why not seek real democratic legitimacy for this monster project? If it is as fantastic and as popular as he claims, why not? If it is so non-urgent that it can be put off to 2008 and beyond, as his documents prove, why not?

The why is clear. Why? Because we are going to win. The only way to get away with this is to stitch up Parliament in the last weeks available, to take advantage of Michael Howard’s – a politician completely captured by the Home Office’s control bureaucrats – term as Tory “leader” to push through this Establishment beatup before anything democratic might happen. If you don’t have one of the 93 MPs, hold them responsible. That’s the stuff, isn’t it? Personal accountability. We’re all on the market now. I remember a very big demonstration in February. We are going to win.

Frans Groenendijk has an interesting post about the politics of international development aid, specifically the question of whether or not it’s working. Holland prides itself on meeting the UN target of 0.7% of gross national income, but it seems (if I have his argument aright) that there is a growing disagreement as to whether or not the focus on this number has distracted Dutch politics from the uses it’s put to. Of course, the far right hasn’t been slow to get involved, demanding an investigation (presumably of the sort that starts off with the conclusion and works back).

The Social Democrats, though, apparently want to broaden the focus and reconsider which policy fields can be defined as “aid”. As Frans says, there is much to be said for this because you can’t do development without addressing the wars. But (as I commented) there are serious risks inherent in any inclusion of peacekeeping in the aid target. After all it wouldn’t be the first time that rich states attempted to use aid to favour their own economic and strategic interests, and who wants to find George Bush boasting about how much the US is contributing in “aid”, having redefined the military payroll in Iraq as such? Another problem would be that of letting governments off the hook – if the Treasury can grab the public kudos of hitting the 0.7% goal without putting up any cash, just by altering the accounting definitions, you can bet they will.

But there is a genuine point here. Take Sierra Leone, for example. No, please. It’s probably fair to say that none of the money spent in aid there during the 1990s did any good at all except in the sense of pure humanitarianism – feeding refugees and the like. Until the diamond-fuelled civil war was brought under control, no efforts at lasting change were worthwhile as they simply vanished under the next surge of violence. In the end, the only way to end the war in Sierra Leone was for one side to lose – they had already demonstrated their unwillingness to respect compromises. The British/UN intervention in 2000 was successful precisely because it demonstrated that the government of Sierra Leone would win, without ratcheting up the military insult to the country yet further like the Nigerian-led ECOMOG peacekeeping force had done after the coup in 1997, hammering Freetown with artillery and enriching its senior officers with diamonds. (If you’re interested, there’s an excellent account of the whole episode in Gwyn Prins’s The Heart of War: Power, conflict and obligation in the 21st century. Which you should read anyway.) Surely it would be fair to consider Operation Barras and its various continuations a contribution to the development of Sierra Leone? If folk like Hernando de Soto are right, and the key to progress in the Third World is extending property rights to the poor, wouldn’t (say) aid in creating an honest police force come under this heading?

Unfortunately, I suspect this is a good idea doomed by the fact it relies on politicians being honest. You can easily see how a security subheading of the aid budget could be used to camouflage or render nice the transfer of arms to countries that already have more than enough.

I have had the long-term project of redesigning the Ranter for some time. In the last few weeks, work on a new Ranter has proceeded apace and a nearly complete template has been in use on a test blog for several days. The test blog’s purpose is to check the new template’s performance, accessibility and standards compliance in real conditions. It is currently working and is written in valid XHTML 1.0. With the exception of the Blogger Navbar (which is not under my control), all CSS used in it is also valid.

I now feel sufficiently confident of the new template to ask for some user feedback.

The testblog can be found here. Comments please in the thread below.

Work remaining to be done on the template is as follows: Install search function. This is taking longer than expected because I have decided to junk the Atomz search currently on the Ranter, frankly because it frequently fails to find searches I know for a fact have appeared in the text. Implement feeds coverage. This is slightly more difficult as I have yet to find a really satisfactory service. Blogstreet, which integrated very well, has been offline for months. BlogFuel is hideous, and the current FeedSweep service behaves differently in IE and Firefox, streams unwanted content along with the feeds, and is infuriatingly unreliable. Further, some webring code will need editing to be XHTML validation compliant before it can be deployed.

IE users should be aware that the clock will be on the new site as soon as I have finished vetting the code for validation and to ensure that other browsers will accept it.

Not so long ago, I mentioned that the director of the Rudolfinerhaus, Lothar Wicke, had resigned on the same day the clinic announced that it had confirmed that Viktor Yushchenko had been poisoned. This resignation, officially due to overwork, was the basis for a brief flowering of conspiracy theories at the time. It seems there was indeed a conspiracy, but just not the one they thought.

The mighty FT ran a rather complicated story yesterday in which they succeeded in explaining the incident in some detail. It seems that Dr. Wicke is an intimate of Leonid Kuchma and doctor to many of those close to him. (Kuchma’s children, it turns out, were born in the Vienna clinic.) When Yushchenko pitched up in the place riddled with dioxins, Kuchma’s son-in-law and campaign chief made a dash to Vienna accompanied by a group of spin doctors hired from the French PR firm EuroRSCG, who persuaded Wicke to hold a press conference denying the suggestion that the illness was indeed poisoning. No wonder he feels – ah – overworked.

I’m about to do that stereotype blogger thing of doing an unfocused round-up post for want of inspiration, so please bear with me. In the Ukraine, for example, more details are out from AP (via Neeka) about the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko. Apparently, he has the second highest concentration of dioxin ever recorded in a human being. The British toxicologist John Henry, one of the first people to suspect dioxin poisoning in the case, remarks that the chloracne only appeared late in his illness – suggesting that, had the poisoning killed him, it would never have been discovered.

Back in October, during the great RDX affair, I mentioned that John A. Shaw, Pentagon Deputy Undersecretary of Defence for International Technology Security and possibly the owner of the world’s largest business card, had probably been lying when he fed the Washington Times a story that the Russian army had removed the missing explosives. I said that despite his exposure, he wouldn’t be resigned. Rather to my surprise, though, he’s been fired over a corruption scandal.

You may also remember this bizarre tale of mercenaries, business jets, fundamentalists and tax-evaders in Papua New Guinea. (more, here) The latest is that several people involved including the pilots were convicted of several offences in air law by the PNG courts, after a chaotic case that exposed the PNG authorities as not knowing very much about the realities of the position. Another case continues concerning attempts to have the plane released. The PNG newspaper The National has alleged that arms were aboard the aircraft.

Caller to BBC Radio 5 discussion on today’s court ruling against the indefinite incarceration of terrorist suspects in Belmarsh: “I believe in the majority, not the individual!” It was almost enough to make me sympathetic towards Patrick Mercer, the Tory who is luckless enough to be “shadow secretary of state for homeland security” – that is, shadowing a ministry that doesn’t exist – who appeared on the programme too. Mercer made the sound point that, if we are serious that these men are evil terrorists, we should put them on trial, and that legal powers already exist for this.

I wonder if he will be present at the vote on the ID Card Bill? Many of the Tory front bench are supposedly going to be unaccountably absent after Michael Howard decided to support the Bill over their objections. He now supports both Labour’s worst policies – is he the first politician to castrate himself twice?

Yesterday’s Times carried this article concerning binge drinking. Bizarrely, the print version of this contained a large pull-quote about half-way down the story which read

“Teenage drinking is out of control – ministers have been all talk”

Now, your keen and agile mind will recognise the “all talk” bit as a major Conservative talking point. Michael Howard barely lets a day go by without using the phrase “all talk and no delivery” at least once. So how did it get there when it doesn’t appear anywhere in the text? None of the people quoted in story actually say it. The quote in itself was not attributed to anybody else. And it sounds exactly like something a Conservative spokesman would have come up with.