Archive for the ‘Home Office’ Category

Self-satirising ID card madness. So they’ve actually got as far as issuing some significant contracts. We’ll begin by noting that one of them has gone to CSC, last seen introducing the joy of Cerner software to the NHS National Programme for IT. But much more to the point, what is this talk about using the Chip-and-PIN infrastructure?

This is an insanely stupid idea, and is probably explained by the fact that someone has realised that there are no biometric readers, nobody wants them, there are no plans for how to deploy them, and the totality of Government thinking on the subject can be summed up as “private sector ponies!”

We already know that the system, although more secure than the old one, is quite fallible and has been successfully attacked. We further know that there are even merchant terminals in circulation with unauthorised GSM radios in them that send messages to numbers in Pakistan. It is also true that the UK version of EMV doesn’t provide two-factor authentication because the PIN is stored on the card. This means that someone preparing a fake card who could steal bank card PINs could also steal National ID ones and make the card work in a reader.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. The primary mechanism of authentication is not the one the makers say is the primary one, it’s the one that gets used the most. There are currently several million EMV terminals; there are zero biometric ones. Further, the biometric technologies involved have high failure rates; EMV has well over 99 per cent uptime and even higher exactitude. Therefore it will be used and the biometrics won’t, so a rational attacker won’t worry about the biometrics unless they really have to.

In fact, because of the false positive issue, the biometrics will be gainsaid by the EMV. Think about it. As a checker, you will with mathematical certainty encounter regular false positives. (You’ll also encounter false negatives, but you won’t know about them.) However, you will only very rarely encounter a real positive. Therefore, if a biometric check doesn’t match, you will believe it to be a false alarm, and you will very probably ask the person presenting it to enter their PIN.

Also, the government seems to have abandoned the idea of doing direct biometric-to-database checks and instead wants to authenticate a biometric held on the card to the user, like looking at the photograph on a passport. This means that it is much easier to fool anyway, because the card can be altered to match the user. But adding an additional “check” which is in fact easier to fake means that this is more likely to work.

A fundamental problem with EMV is that there is no out-of-band verification of the transactions. You have to trust the card reader, and there is no obvious way of verifying it. Personally, I always turn it over and look under it because all the hardware attacks I’ve read about involve drilling a hole through the back, but if the remote management interface has been left with the password set to “password” this won’t help me at all.

Various efforts to improve this exist; there are systems that send an encrypted message to an application on your mobile phone to get your authorisation, so that if someone else is trying to spend your money, you’ll get unsolicited authorisation requests, and if a card reader is actually a fake you *won’t* get an authorisation request and your bank won’t pay.

But this doesn’t exist in the UK, so the government is suggesting integrating what it thinks is the gold standard of identification into a significantly weaker security system; it’s in the nature of security that the weakest link determines the strength of the whole.

Now here’s the self satirising bit. As before with the old bank card system, the banks have been trying to pretend that EMV is infallible and that anyone who loses money is a fraud. The test case that will probably end this madness is coming right up, at the same time as the government wants to use the system for ID cards!

The thing that pisses me off about Al-Qa’ida is that they insist on egging the government on. That said, I can’t think of anything more ridiculous than Phil Woolas wanting to have reports of any foreign student who misses ten lectures. I can’t think of many things more ridiculous and contemptible than Phil Woolas anyway, but this drowns the fish.

I should point out that he was on Radio 4 earlier today claiming that “biometric visas” were our first line of defence, because the visas were checked against a watchlist. He didn’t say, mark, that the biometrics were; after all, if they haven’t caught the guy yet, they don’t have his dabs.

Let’s think about it sensibly. I doubt there is a single student in the world who hasn’t accumulated 10 hours of non-attendance during their course of study; even if you reset the limit after every academic year, there will still be an absurd number of false positives. There are 330,000 foreign students in the UK. How many might miss 10 hours of classes in a given year? For some courses, you’d only need a couple of days off sick. An outbreak of freshers’ flu at the right schools could stage a denial-of-service attack on the whole gig. How many reports are they prepared to follow up, to what degree of thoroughness?

Further, and I know this is a pathetic argument long since raped by history, the idea of a university implies a commitment to intellectual freedom and a certain respect for the fact that the students are adults who attend of their free will.

But even if you forget everything else, as a security measure this is quite incredibly cretinous. The threat it is designed to mitigate is that terrorists will pose as students in order to infiltrate the country, or rather that they will actually become students in order to do so. Of course, they may also do this to prepare an attack on some other country. Anyway. If you have registered at a university in order to pose as a student, it’s obviously part of your cover story that you go to lectures. Depending on what you are planning, you might even be hoping to get access to things you need for the attack – information, a good chemical or biological lab, perhaps time on a supercomputer – in which case you’ve got to go to the lab or the library regularly as well.

This is a security measure which is designed to miss anyone who matches the attack profile it’s designed to detect. Further, the more serious, disciplined, and well-organised the attacker, and the more technical and demanding the subject they choose to study – in short, the more dangerous – they are, the less likely it is to detect them. It even provides them with an explicit target number of classes they must not miss. It is quite brilliant in a negative way.

It is especially hilarious that several ministers in the government spent much of their student years plotting, or imagining that they plotted, how to bring about the world revolution. Presumably, they did this between lectures. Or perhaps they didn’t, and in fact they are basing their policy on their own experience; which would explain how little they seem to have learned.

“Londonstani” has a superb post at Abu Muqawama about Ed Husain’s The Islamist. Read the whole thing. Then look at the comments and cry.

Meanwhile, shouldn’t this story be getting much more press?

Intelligence briefings for Mr Obama have detailed a dramatic escalation in American espionage in Britain, where the CIA has recruited record numbers of informants in the Pakistani community to monitor the 2,000 terrorist suspects identified by MI5, the British security service..


The CIA has already spent 18 months developing a network of agents in Britain to combat al-Qaeda, unprecedented in size within the borders of such a close ally, according to intelligence sources in both London and Washington.

An agent network? This is the sort of thing the Americans were constantly trying to put over on us in the 1950s and 60s and Sir Peter Wright, by his own account admittedly, spent a lot of time and effort kiboshing. It appears to be John Reid’s fault, which is interesting but hardly surprising. It’s much more surprising to find this in the Daily Telegraph, but there you go.

A pint of wanker goes to Patrick Mercer MP, who is quoted as basically saying he’s cool with that and daddy knows best:

Patrick Mercer, chairman of the House of Commons counter-terrorism sub-committee, said: “The special relationship is a huge benefit to us. It clearly works to our advantage and helps keep the people of the UK and the US safe.

“There is no doubt that a great deal of valuable intelligence vital to British national security is procured by American agents from British sources.”

World of Ken MacLeod Watch is obviously a feature we’ll have to introduce here.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

So, how are those ID cards going? It seems that despite the government’s fanfare, repeated several times, of announcing the issue of the first ID cards, it is impossible to check anyone’s card because there are no card readers.

Of course, it’s actually worse than that – even if the card readers had been issued, they would be entirely useless, because the heart of the entire ID project doesn’t exist yet. The point of the readers is to look up data from the card against the National Identity Register’s monster database. But the NIR doesn’t exist yet, either, and there are still no signs of any substantive work in progress. One small contract has been issued to Thales, but beyond that…silence.

So, the launch of the ID card programme, the climax of Liam “I used to be an IT consultant, me” Byrne’s 300 day delivery plan, has consisted purely in distributing a few bits of plastic of no practical purpose whatsoever. The target groups for the first cards were foreign students and airport workers. So far, the universities have shown unwillingness to take part, and the unions representing pilots and airside workers have threatened to strike.

I’m actually really impressed by the sheer obstructive dumb strength of the public on this; the government has tried to get the doctors, the aviation industry, the social services, the universities, and the business community to deploy card readers, and the result is quite literally sweet fuck all. It’s positively Sicilian; politicians and officials flap their arms and speechify and manoeuvre their police force, and on the ground, none of it makes a blind bit of difference.

I was wondering whether any cards have actually been issued. There have been expensive press events, cards have been brandished by ministers; but the issuing of cards to airside personnel has been repeatedly put off, and the trial at Manchester remained a trial.

So how many cards are actually in the wild? Guy Herbert of NO2ID reckons he’s yet to encounter one documented case of an identity card being issued. This may be a brilliant solution – faced with the scheme’s mountainous problems, the State might simply decide to pretend to issue the cards.

Come to think of it, this might be ideal; the control bureaucrats would remain employed, their contractors would share in a modest stream of income, some of which would inevitably be kicked back in the form of directorships and sinecures for old officials, honour would be satisfied, and an unseemly confrontation with the public forever delayed. It would indeed be an Italian sort of solution.

It is, after all, called the National Identity Scheme. And whether you think of a tax-evasion scheme, or a decaying tower block in Scotland – another technologically flawed white elephant imposed on the working class by the state – you’ve got to admit it’s appropriate.

Phil Woolas is beneath contempt.

I was going to say more, but it would be waste verbiage.

It is come to this. Here is our Secretary of State for Culture:

The culture secretary, Andy Burnham, says in an interview today that the government is considering the need for “child safe” websites – registered with cinema-style age warnings – to curb access to offensive or damaging online material.

He plans to approach US president-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration with proposals for tight international rules on English language websites, which may include forcing internet service providers, such as BT, Tiscali, Sky and AOL, to ­provide packages restricting access to websites without an age rating.

Oh shitty fuck. I thought it was bad enough when a colleague of mine mentioned that Burnham wanted to make YouTube put warnings next to everything it carried that included rude words. But no, it’s worse. This is dire in so many ways; for a start, this is our Secretary of Culture yelling for censorship. Not the Home Secretary, or the Minister for Promoting Virtue and Punishing Vice, or the Lord Chamberlain.

Shouldn’t he be the voice for culture in the Cabinet, like the Chancellor is for finance, or the secretary of defence is for the military? The Home Office will always demand more surveillance and more control, but shouldn’t the Department of Culture demand culture?

Further, there’s the crappy idea of special “packages” of the Internet with bits missing. There is a clear reason why this is crappy: if it is so desirable, why isn’t anyone selling it? Isn’t there a gap in the market? Of course, one of the problems is that it would be expensive – who will go through all the websites censoring them? But then, they say you can’t buck the market, and if you can’t do that to build a national fibre network or keep Amersham’s DNA sequencer business in the UK, you can’t do that for censorship.

It’s also crappy because it does nothing about peer-to-peer networks, instant messaging, VoIP, USENET, e-mail (remember that?), but it’s worse than that – it’s based on a set of fundamentally stupid and discriminatory assumptions.

First of all, there’s the idea that sin can leap out and grab you, to quote Holden Caulfield. Paedophiles can make vapours rise up from the keyboard. But secondly, there’s the idea that this only applies to some very specific and rather puny kinds of sin. There is surely plenty of stuff in an average edition of several national newspapers that, if we looked at it clearly, we would all agree is highly unsuitable for children; and it has little or nothing to do with the usual tropes of rude words and naked flesh.

Third, there’s a weird discrimination of means. Not only is a punch in the mouth worse on this scale of values (violence!) than the delivery of a 1,000 pound bomb (this is called “action”), pretty much anything is OK if it is delivered in print or in the theatre. Nobody seems to want to censor the printing press or reintroduce theatrical censorship. The explanation is in part that the National Theatre’s seating capacity is less than the peak daily traffic of this weblog and heavily London-focused. But that’s not enough.

If the buggers are reading books, this is in a sense enough – they look more middle-class, dammit, and who cares about the content. And if you’ve got them into a theatre for something of their choice, it’s unlikely they are the ones you’re worrying about.

But I am even more furious about the reference to the “English-language Internet”. For a start, this betrays deep ignorance. There is no such thing; the Internet has no notion of English language, and it’s damn right. It’s because of this that it can work in every language. And Burnham seems to think he owns the English language, that he can impose his will on anyone who chooses to write in it. What if an Indian does so, on a website hosted in Holland, operated by a Chinese company? Who is this Burnham?

It’s worse than that, though; he is trying to push his quack nonsense on the Americans, which means he doesn’t think he can get it through Parliament and he also doesn’t think he can get it through the European Parliament, so he wants a nice little unpublished understanding with the Americans that the prime minister can sign and instantly ratify under the prerogative power, and then place in the Commons library, or perhaps not. Rather like the whole wealth of other understandings that have to do with electronic surveillance of one form or another.

The good news, however, is that his proposals might contravene the US constitution (we can’t expect too much from our own). If they can have secret transatlantic understandings, then I intend to have one of my own.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s top five cities get fibre to the home.

This week we’ve had the Piccadilly bunglebombers’ convictions, but more importantly the first conviction for “directing terrorism”. This was the case in which the suspect’s fingernails were torn out by the Pakistani intelligence service; he claims, and I see no reason whatsoever to doubt this, that he was questioned between bouts of torture by British officials. But this isn’t what worries me.

It’s that the poison is seeping into the courts. This particular one was willing not only to accept that, as the case didn’t strictly rest on information from Pakistan, the torture was inadmissible, it was willing to determine this in secret and issue a ruling which is itself secret, before proceeding to a trial by jury. The secret ruling was of course secret from the jury. I really cannot imagine how this is meant to amount to a fair trial. And then there is the de Menezes inquest, where the coroner simply decided that no verdict that implied the police did anything wrong was acceptable.

In the bunglebombers’ case, meanwhile, we had the astonishing conviction of a man for “withholding information” where the information in question was an e-mail message in an account which the Crown accepted had not been accessed since some time before the message arrived. You can now become a terrorist by not checking your e-mail frequently enough.

And I really have no idea how we would go about reversing this. After the long and successful fight over detentions under ATCSA2001, and the partially successful one over control orders, it seems that this is as nothing to the broader deterioration. As someone said in a quite different context,

Someone asked for onbeforeunload, so I started fixing it. Then I found that there was some rot in the drywall. So I took down the drywall. Then I found a rat infestation. So I killed all the rats. Then I found that the reason for the rot was a slow leak in the plumbing. So I tried fixing the plumbing, but it turned out the whole building used lead pipes. So I had to redo all the plumbing. But then I found that the town’s water system wasn’t quite compatible with modern plumbing techniques, and I had to dig up the entire town. And that’s basically it.

One thing that specifically worries me is that the judiciary’s record of opposing the security state in some super-high profile cases conflicts with its opposing, Huttonite tendency of doing quite outrageous things rather than face the prospect of State agents lying. Everyone remembers some of these cases; the risk is that they serve as an institutional alibi.

This is no theoretical question, either. All the data shows that we’re heading for an inconclusive election (or rather, one which actually represents the distribution of opinion in the electorate). You can be certain that there will be no help from the Tories on this score. But what terms can the Liberals insist on that would actually achieve something? What legislation could be repealed that would have a clear signalling effect? I’m not optimistic; I fear that if they were to make anything worth arguing for part of the price for coalition or toleration, there would simply be a Labservative government, a “grand coalition of the I’m all right, Jacks” as the Germans say. A club for the self-protection of the parties who corrupted our institutions to this extent in the first place.

ID cards sliding right again. This time it’s the airport workers – they’ve been downscaled from all the airport workers to just London City and Manchester, and from a production deployment to an “18-month trial”. This comes after the planned issue of cards last month went from “actually issuing the cards” to “announcing it again”. Jacqui Smith is whistling past the graveyard, making up tales about people stopping her in the street to ask for ID cards. Perhaps they were asking for her ID card? Meanwhile, the cost comes back up to £59 again, whilst the fantasy of the private sector registering everyone for (?) gets trotted out.

Meanwhile, this should be the most damning thing ever said about Stockwell. Clearly, the police weren’t following their own procedures, the command structure was nonfunctional, and Cressida Dick was out of her depth. But then you’d know that if you’d read the IPCC Report; so why haven’t any of the sodding newspapers?

OK, so what about those identity cards for (some kinds of) foreign nationals? You’ll recall that the Government promised, back in the spring, to have them out and operational in 300 days. As late as July, there were no actual contracts for the job, but they did actually manage to bring in Thales to start work. So how’s it going?

Well, despite the vast cutback in scope and scale, the decision to base it on crappy existing records, and just to forget about the National ID Register for now (thus obviating the whole point)…it’s already over budget by 29% and it’s sliding right, from March 2009 to August 2010. Cracking; the element of the project they specially rushed forward in order to get something, anything working on time has now slid so badly that it’s caught up with the rest of the project.

Meanwhile, the Home Office is issuing 5,400 fraudulent passports a year, among some 200,000 dodgy docs in circulation. Apparently “automated facial recognition” will solve it; this doesn’t make very much sense, as surely the main problem is people submitting genuine photographs of themselves and falsifying the biographical section of the form.

Further, face recognition systems are poor enough (remember the one in Newham that never actually caught anyone?) at positive identification; checking the face provided against the one on file. The failure rate in the Home Office 2004 trials was about 30 per cent. But the IPS and DVLA seem to think they can rely on it to guarantee that the same person isn’t already registered, and do this by matching faces to a database containing tens of millions of faces, taken under all kinds of different circumstances. What kind of false-positive rate can you expect from that?

In fact, it’s worse; if they’re trying to detect multiple applications or applications under false names, the evidence of an honest application will be the absence of a match. So the most common failure mode will result in the document being issued anyway, and there is no way to detect this. And you won’t be able to assume that a match is proof of fraud either, because of the inevitable false positives; so the chance of successfully getting a passport or driving licence in someone else’s name might actually be better.

As someone once said: ladies and gentlemen, we got him.

It appears that – of all people – Boris Johnson gets the honour of dragging “Sir” Ian out of his spider hole. Of course, this raises all kinds of legal issues as to who, exactly, gets to hire’n’fire the commissioner of the Met. Is it the MPA? The Home Office? The Mayor? The Mayor’s delegate, as deputy mayor for policing and fantasy airport design? It’s a little more simple now Boris has decided to be his own MPA chair, but not much.

Yeah, well, wonk away. In the meantime, my plans include rejoicing, and possibly burning a huge effigy on Hampstead Heath. I’m having a good week; so far, the count of “things Alex has protested against that were actually reversed” has gone from zero, to one (Austrian tuition fees, which can only be estimated a smidgen picayune), and now to a massive two.

The Grauniad has details, including bits I’d forgotten – like bugging Lord Goldsmith! I mean, I can think of few people I’d rather bug, and anything that bugs him must be good, but it’s rather illegal, a bad precedent, and undignified. Bugging the IPCC! Now that was just fucking outrageous. Pretending to have taken part in the Balcombe Street shootout! Yes! Seriously! Giving his best mate’s IT shop three million quid! Lying about how much it cost to ineffectually harass Brian Haw!

Now there’s a thought to chew on – Brian Haw can bed down tonight secure in the knowledge that he’s outlasted his second police chief, through nothing more than his own glorious pigheaded obstinacy and their pompous, gut-chafing stupidity. It makes you proud to be British.

On this fine evening in the liberated capital, who on earth could remain bitter? Martin Kettle, that’s who! And guess what? He’s still whining about the Rio police force! Now let’s ask a question – had the cops shot the train driver, or their comrade “Ivor”, as very nearly happened, would anyone have mentioned the performance of this outfit? Obviously not. Kettle has been arguing that it’s OK to off people who come from countries with really bad police forces, on the basis of some twisted sort of reciprocity. It’s perverse, it’s stupid, it’s basically the same ugly racist gunk as the “De Menezes Was An Illegal” guy was pushing, dressed up for Guardian consumption. (Oh, so what did happen to that blog? It hasn’t been updated for two years, presumably after it became clear he wasn’t.)

More seriously, Kettle also manages to say that greater democratic oversight of the police is simultaneously good and bad, and he doesn’t appear to know that we have elected police authorities, as we used to have watch committees, precisely in order that the police answer to someone who was actually elected. But who cares? Despite the fullest confidence of the prime minister, the home secretary, Kirsten Hearn, John Roberts, Jenny Jones, and Martin Kettle, ladies and gentlemen, we got him.