Just say no (to blanket data retention)

Consultation on amendments proposed to the communications data regime, and the draft communications data code of practice for the Investigatory Powers Act

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks since I last blogged, mostly due to a combination of returning to work and picking up a rotten cold (sadly, I think the two may be connected). Despite this, I’m pleased to say I’ve still managed to keep most of my campaigning commitments with Bournville Labour and even make time to take part in a planning session for Open Rights Group organisers at BOM on Saturday.

Just say no (to blanket retention of personal data)

Despite everything going on, I came away from the ORG campaign day with a renewed sense of purpose to keep on campaigning for digital rights in the year ahead. This boost probably explains why I’ve just spent some time this evening responding to a somewhat soul-destroying Home Office consultation on a code of practice governing the Investigatory Powers Act, the creepily dystopian surveillance and hacking law which shuffled onto the statute books in late 2016.  I’ve posted below the contents of my email below at the bottom of this post, in case anyone is interested in the issues I’ve raised.

Essentially, the consultation is in response to last year’s judgement by the European Court of Justice, which stated that blanket retention of everyone’s personal data was illegal. The court judgement set out restrictions on retaining and accessing personal data, with the aim of making it a targeted system focused on serious crime, and requiring independent authorisation (usually a judge) before authorities can access personal data. Disappointingly but not surprisingly, the Home Office is choosing to interpret the judgement selectively, leaving in place the blanket data retention whilst (grudgingly) conceding the need for independent authorisation.

Stand up for yourself and show solidarity with at-risk groups

Given the well-documented history of surveillance powers being (mis)used against politicians, journalists, activists, whistleblowers and other groups, I encourage you to take part in the consultation and demand that the Home Office honours the court’s judgement and respects our human rights. You’ve got until 11.45pm tomorrow (18 January) to submit your response. click on the link below to speak up.

Rein in the Investigatory Powers Act

Dear Home Office,

This is a response to the consultation on Communications Data code of practice under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, closing 18 January 2018.

As a UK citizen who believes in the rule of law, I am deeply concerned that you are using this public consultation in order to delay having to implement changes as a result of last year’s ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union declaring the Investigatory Powers Act’s indiscriminate retention of data illegal.

As well as being concerned about the delay caused by the public consultation, I am also very concerned that you are taking a ‘pick and choose’ approach to the Court of Justice’s ruling. For me, the most important element of the judgement was that it established that indiscriminate retention of personal data illegal. Despite this, you are still proposing to allow blanket retention of everyone’s personal data. By taking this approach I believe you are flying in the face of the court’s judgement and appear to have little or no regard for the rule of law and citizens’ fundamental rights. I urge you to comply with the court’s judgement and end blanket retention.

I am also alarmed that you do not plan to notify people that their personal data has been accessed, even after an investigation has concluded. Given the history of surveillance and anti-terrorism powers being inappropriately used against politicians, journalists, activists, whistleblowers and other groups, I believe introducing a credible notification system is important for rebuilding trust in the system and reducing the likelihood of future abuses. Furthermore, I believe the fact that we as citizens are unlikely to ever know if our personal data has been accessed creates a ‘chilling effect’, whereby just the understanding that authorities could access our personal data with little meaningful oversight discourages citizens from freely expressing themselves.

I read with dismay that you will also not be protecting our personal data by keeping it within the EU. I am particularly concerned that this means you will continue to allow my personal data, along with that of my fellow citizens in the UK, to be transferred to the United States, whose laws afford zero protection to non-citizens’ data. I urge you to reconsider your position and keep personal data within the EU.

Lastly, ask that you adopt a reasonable definition of serious crime so as to ensure authorities adopt a reasonable and proportionate approach to accessing personal data, and which takes proper account of the impact retaining and accessing such data has on our fundamental rights. With this in mind, I ask that you adopt the House of Lords’ definition of serious crime, namely crimes capable of sentences of at least one year, rather than your current, lower, definition of a six month sentence.

I hope that your honour the court judgement and implement it in full rather than the selective approach your current proposals would suggest.

Thank you for your time.

Francis Clarke

Campaigning #ForTheMany in Bournville and Cotteridge

Bournville and Cottteridge candidates Fred Grindrod (far left) and Liz Clements (second from right) with Bournville Labour volunteers

One week into 2018, it’s slowly dawning on me that I may have bitten off more than I can chew when it comes to the extracurricular activities I’ve signed up to this year.

As in previous years, I’m likely to spend a lot of 2018 campaigning with Bournville Labour. This May, there are all-out elections in Birmingham. Bournville Ward has been divided into two wards. This means we’ll be splitting our time between a one member ward in Stirchley (where our current Labour councillor, Mary Locke, is standing) and the new ward of Bournville and Cotteridge.

While campaigning in both Wards will require significantly more work, I’m really excited about the prospect of doing more campaigning this year in my home neighbourhood of Bournville. I’m also really proud of the quality of our candidates, Liz Clements (@LizClements) and Fred Grindrod (@fredgrindrod).

I’ve campaigned alongside Liz since 2015 and she’s probably the hardest working campaigner I’ve ever met. In May 2017, Liz was elected as a councillor in Hall Green. Throughout the General Election, Liz was a tireless champion of the Labour Manifesto. Even better, she is committed to public services which put people over profits and wants to bring an end to  the outsourcing of public services.

I’ve not known Fred as long as Liz but already he’s impressed me with his dedication to campaigning and core Labour values. Like Liz, Fred lives in Bournville. Fred comes from a trade unionist background and, like Liz, has an excellent grasp of policy (like me, he also used to work in equalities) . Fred connects with local people on the doorstep and speaks with passion about  the impact Tory cuts are having on the most vulnerable members of our society and what we need to do to change things. I’m proud to be campaigning for him.

As well as leafleting and door knocking, I’ll once again be volunteering my digital skills. Here are the key social media accounts to follow:







Time for a UK-based Next System Podcast in 2018?

The Next System strapline: Systemtic problems require systemic solutions.

I’m writing this post at my in-laws during some down time between Christmas and New Year. I’d love to say it’s been a relaxing break but unfortunately my father-in-law has been in hospital over Christmas, and this has added a fair amount of extra driving and worry on top of the usual holiday stresses.

With everything that’s been going on, I’ve had to take a break from my daily diet of political podcasts and stick to safer topics of conversation such as the weather, holiday plans and Christmas television. This enforced absence has made me realise what I miss most about my podcast habit, namely the opportunity it gives me to learn about and critically consider alternatives to politics as usual.

Continue reading “Time for a UK-based Next System Podcast in 2018?”

Uncertainty over pensions presents an opportunity to demand a more progressive future for all

I recently read about planned changes to university pensions which could leave average scheme members £200,000 worse off in retirement.

In the context of ongoing deeply unfair austerity cuts and research published today by Joseph Rowntree Foundation showing almost 400,000 more UK children and 300,000 more pensioners plunged into poverty in past four years the plight of while collar university staff is unlikely to generate much attention, let alone practical social solidarity.

Rather than be depressed by this, I’m determined to channel my anger into something positive and help build a new politics that’s able to bring people together to demand a future that works for the many, not just the few.

Continue reading “Uncertainty over pensions presents an opportunity to demand a more progressive future for all”

What I learned at South Birmingham Co-operative Info Night No.1

A group of people sitting round a table in Artefact cafe in Stirchley

Earlier this month, I spent an enjoyable and inspiring evening at Artefact cafe in Stirchley at the South Birmingham Co-operative Info Night No.1. The night was a chance to meet people who’d set up and/or are working in co-operatives in South Birmingham and learn more about the benefits they can offer workers and the wider community.

Continue reading “What I learned at South Birmingham Co-operative Info Night No.1”

What I learned from taking part in the Copyright as Frame and Prison panel discussion

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of taking part in Copyright as Frame and Prison, an arts-focused panel discussion organised by Birmingham-based digital artist Antonio Roberts (AKA @hellocatfood on Twitter) as part of his excellent new No Copyright Infringement Intended group exhibition.

Taking part in the panel discussion helped me clarify my own thinking and exposed me to new perspectives on copyright, creativity and society. I thought I’d share a link to the video recording of the event as well as what I learned from taking  part in the event.

Continue reading “What I learned from taking part in the Copyright as Frame and Prison panel discussion”

Demanding the future

"Inventing the Future" paperback sitting on table

What does the future hold? Even after Labour’s stronger than expected performance in the General Election (fought on an inspiring manifesto), most people I speak to or follow online seem resigned to a dismal future that doesn’t seem like a fun place to visit for the day, let alone live in.

Continue reading “Demanding the future”

Back to the drawing board? How you can help ensure the government learns from serious criticism of the Investigatory Powers Bill

Illustration of architect standing by drawing board. Public domain image.

Yesterday, I blogged over at Open Rights Group Birmingham about the latest twists and turns in the development of the Investigatory Powers Bill, the government’s plans to increase online surveillance and permit widespread hacking of computer networks.

You can read the full post here.

Open Rights Group Birmingham meetup tomorrow

If this post piqued your interest in online privacy and you live in or near Birmingham, you might like to come to the next Open Rights Group Birmingham meetup, which is happening tomorrow (Wednesday 17 Feb) from 6.30pm at Birmingham Open Media.

At the meetup we’ll be teaching people simple, practical things they can do to protect their privacy and security online. I’m pleased to say we’ve had a really good level of interest in the event, with over 20 people down to attend. If you can’t make it along tomorrow, we’ll be holding regular meetups throughout the year.



Has the science and technology committee struck a blow against the Investigatory Powers Bill?

As an organiser for Open Rights Group Birmingham, I have followed with interest and not a little weariness the twists and turns as the government’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill makes its way through the pre-legislative scrutiny phase.

Today, the House of Commons science and technology committee published a highly critical report on the bill, with its chair, Nicola Blackwood MP commenting:

The current lack of clarity within the draft Investigatory Powers Bill is causing concern amongst businesses. There are widespread doubts over the definition, not to mention the definability, of a number of the terms used in the draft Bill. The Government must urgently review the legislation so that the obligations on the industry are clear and proportionate.

In particular, the report highlights the following problems:

  • The feasibility of collecting and storing Internet Connection Records ICRs – including the very real problem of keeping these highly personal records from (non state-sanctioned) hackers.
  • Anxiety amongst communication  providers over the ability to use effective encryption, which Blackwood recognises is “important in providing the secure services on the internet we all rely on“. The committee particularly wants the government to provide greater clarity over the status of end-to-end encrypted communications, where decryption might not be possible by a communications provider that had not added the original encryption.
  • Concerns amongst certain communications over ‘equipment interference’. For some providers, such as Mozilla (the makers of Firefox), this concern appears to stem from a genuine concern for its users’ privacy and the integrity of the internet. For other providers, the concern is more about how a perception of hacking could hurt their competitiveness in a global market for services.
  • Uncertainty over costs. Coverage of the committee’s report has downplayed the risk associated with spiralling implementation costs, both for government and businesses. At last cost, the Home Secretary has put the cost of implementing the new ICR system at £247 million but the report notes that costs are likely to change (i.e. rise), given the uncertainty and rapid pace of technological change.

It’s worth noting that the committee’s remit was purely to look at the technical feasibility of the government’s proposals and how these might affect communications businesses, not whether the communications monitoring provisions or whether they are proportionate to the threats they are intended to deal with. These issues are expected to be addressed by the joint committe Joint Committee established to scrutinise the draft Bill as a whole.

I believe the criticisms levelled at the bill in this report are significant for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, by focusing solely on the technical feasibility of implementing the bill, it manages to side-step the highly polarised debate between privacy and security advocates. This report says, irrespective of your views on the merits of expanded monitoring of communications, you should be concerned as a citizen and taxpayer about the feasibility of implementing the government’s plans at anything approaching a sensible level of expenditure.

Secondly, by holding up the prospect that the Investigatory Powers Bill will do real harm to the growing UK tech sector, the report will hopefully encourage the government to modify its approach, if only to protect its supposed reputation for business confidence.

Both these signals – questions over the feasability of implementation and the likely damage to the UK’s growing tech sector – will not  in itself be enough to stop the Investigatory Powers Bill becoming law, but it’s a start.

The Joint Committee is due to deliver its full report on the Investigatory Powers Bill no later than 17 February. It will be interesting to see whether this committee takes a similarly critical stance on the merits of expanded monitoring provisions and the limited amount of time the committee was given to scrutinise the bill.

Cost of Investigatory Powers Bill could undermine UK Tech sector – full details of science and technology committee report

Science and Technology Committee of Parliament slams Snoopers’ Charter – Open Rights Group’s reaction to the committee’s report

Supporting authentic digital engagement

Screenshot of Twitter account of Kevin McGurgan, UK Consul-General Toronto & Head @UKTI_Canada.

Since September, my role as product lead for Helpful Technology’s Digitial Action Plan has involved working closely with with senior civil servants to help them become more confident around digital engagement. I’d like to share with you what I have observed to be the main barriers to civil servants becoming authentic digital engagers and how we can overcome them.

Mastering the basics

At its heart, the Digital Action Plan is about giving people the confidence to use digital tools at work to listen, explain and talk with their audiences. Before people can can do that, however, they need to feel at ease with the basics of technology.

One of the great things about being from an external organisation is that civil servants, particularly those in senior roles, feel able to ask me for help where they might otherwise avoid doing so out of fear of looking foolish. For example, one person mentioned to me the common problem of struggling to remember passwords for different online services. Recognising this was likely to discourage them doing more with digital, I introduced them to the LastPass password manager, which will take the headache away from accessing digitial services.

While I am pleased to be able to help participants with any basic issues they have, I’d like to see organisations provide regular opportunities for staff to learn the basics in a non-judgemental environment. From my time as a Social Media Surgery volunteer, I know informal sessions can be a good way for people with skills to help others. Meetups could be held on a partcular theme, such as protecting your privacy and security online, or be of a more free form nature.

Making time for learning

I’ve found time, or more precisely the lack of it, to be a major barrier to civil servants becoming more effective at digital engagement. Not surprisingly, it can be a struggle to carve out time to learn new skills whilst managing a demanding workload.

For example, it’s pretty obvious writing and presenting a paper to the board is going to loom large in somebody’s to-do list and have the potential to put a limit on learning time. With the Digital Action Plan, I try to bridge the traditional divide between training and the day job by encouraging participants to connect their learning goals with real-life project and tasks. For instance, could a participant use Twitter to inform stakeholders about the forthcoming report, what its implications are and how they can get involved?

While most participants find they are able to connect their learning goals to forthcoming projects, I believe there is still more we can do. I would like to see closer working between line managers and participants so that there is clear agreement on how digital engagement learning will be built into participants’ workloads in a way that directly supports a team or department’s core objectives.

Valuing boldness

As a trainer, one of the most satisfying parts of the job is seeing people you’ve supported take offf and really run with something you’ve introduced them to. Conversely, it’s easy to feel disapppointed when people for whatever reason seem to fail to respond to your support or choose not to put what they’ve learned into practice.

In my experience, the people who get the most from the Digital Action Plan are those who are willing to be bold and seize the opportunities available to them. Earlier this month I was impressed when a participant published their first blog post on LinkedIn after previously expressing quite significant reservations over developing their own professional profile online.

At Helpful, I try to encourage participants to be ambitious about what they can achieve and to believe that they have it within themselves to learn new things and to do things differently. I do this by sharing examples of interesting things their peers are doing, such as the Foreign Office’s engaging use of Shorthand Social and showing them that they aren’t the first person to be nervous about blending the personal and the professional in their digital engagement.

The FSA’s Christina Hammond-Aziz’ recent blog post why faceless civil servant is never a good look, makes clear the significant progress the civil servicehas made on digital engagement but, as with any organisation or sector, there is always room for improvement.

This week, Janet Hughes from the Government Digital Service asked: what if boldness were an explicit value of the civil service? Janet describes boldness as bringing your whole to the situation and demonstrating the values of opennesss of optimism and a commitment to something bigger than yourself. In doing so Janet could just as easily have been describing the qualities of authentic digital engagement. Ultimately, if we want civil servants to be authentic digitial engagers, we must go further in supporting an organisatonal culture which values and rewards authetic engagement.