Category Archives: Observations

Echoes of Phorm in mobile phone hacking story

Back when the Open Rights Group was campaigning against the targeted advertising company Phorm, one of the discoveries we made was that UK citizens had very few avenues of redress when private companies intercept their communications illegally. The Information Commissioner only regulates data processing (and of course, FOI), and not communications interception. And the Interception of Communications Commissioner is only set up to regulate the interception activities of public authorities, (law enforcement, etc). If you suspect your communications are being intercepted by someone on the make, you either have to put up with it, or persuade the CPS to prosecute.

So I’ve been following the current storm around the illegal “hacking” of MPs’ and others’ mobile phones with some interest. Although it’s not clear to me what this hacking actually consisted of, and whether it could be classed as an interception, it certainly isn’t a matter for the Information Commissioner. Which might explain why invocations of the ICO have gradually disappeared from the rhetoric surrounding possible avenues of redress for those affected.

Of course, if you’re an MP and your communications get intercepted by a private company, you have it in your power to change the law so that private individuals such as yourself can be better protected in the future. Then again, it’s probably much more expedient to the use the resources bestowed on you by the tax-paying public to cover your own arse and leave it at that.

Hacks and hacking

I’m saving up the third book in Stieg Larsson’s Milennium Trilogy for my beach holiday in Ibiza next week. It’s difficult. The first two were so compelling that I can hardly wait to pick up the third – and last (Larsson died in 2004, before he saw the strange fruits of his imagination garner international acclaim). In being addicted to his characters, I’m not special. On my journey to Boston last week there was a person reading one of the series sitting next to me on the airplane on both flights. But I think the books have an even bigger hold on me because their two main characters are a computer hacker and an investigative journalist.

Here’s the trailer for the film:

When I return from Ibiza, I’ll be joining the good folk at the UK Online News Association for a conversation about “hacks and hacking”. The hacks we’ll be talking about are not computer exploits performed by script kiddies, but living, breathing hacks, ie journalists. And the hackers we’ll be discussing are not the blackhat/grayhat masters of subterfuge cut from Lisbeth Salander’s cloth, but the data mashers and techie geeks who get their thrills from analysing and visualising official information. That’s right, folks, we’ll be talking data-driven journalism.

Rufus Pollock, co-founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation and the man without whom no journalist could have made sense of the recently released Treasury database on government spending COINS, will also be there. Here’s the blurb:

UK MPs expenses was one of the biggest stories of 2009 that has continued to be felt well into 2010. It was at its heart a story of detail, data and piecing information together and is just one example of how developers and journalists are working together.

What does this mean for the future of journalism and news gathering? ONA UK invites you to an evening exploring Hacks & Hacking with:

Dr. Rufus Pollock – Mead Fellow in Economics at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge and a Director of the Open Knowledge Foundation which he co-founded in 2004. He has worked extensively, as a scholar, coder and activist on the technological, social and legal issues surrounding access and sharing of knowledge. Under his lead Open Knowledge Foundation recently launched Where Does My Money Go to analyse and visualise UK public spending.

Becky Hogge – journalist and writer on information politics, human rights and technology. Becky is former managing editor of OpenDemocracy during which time she helped establish the China environment website Becky sits on the Advisory Councils of the Foundation for Information Policy Research and the Open Rights Group.

Chaired by Kathryn Corrick

Reserve your place here.

Networks: Welcome to the Labyrinth

Me at the Resonance studios

Nervous, moi?

Last month, as the nation went to the polls, I went to the Resonance 104.4 FM studios to record an hour’s worth of live, unscripted chat with the marvelous Ken Hollings. Each week, Hollings gathers ne’er-do-wells like myself to discuss the future viewed from the past, analysing the techno-dreams of our ancestors from the safety of a lost pavilion in “Hollingsville” – his putative abandoned and overgrown World Fair.

The show can be streamed or downloaded, and it includes musical interludes from Richard H. Kirk.

The week I went in the topic was Networks. We talked about Norbert Wiener, about Skinnerism, about labyrinths, and about the balls of string that guide us through them. We discussed utopias and dystopias, and wondered whether Facebook made us “compete as slaves” as Wiener warned we must if we entered into the wrong relationship with our machines. We talked about “Homesteading the Noosphere”, about Stewart Brand and John Perry Barlow’s Wild West fantasies, and about the FBI, 9/11 and the Saudi Arabian telephone network the day the first Gulf War started.

All in all, it was as far away from my appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme as a piece of radio could ever get, and although I was nervous when I went into the studio (not least because our fellow interlocutor, Alfie Dennen, had been laid low at the last minute by a ravaging tooth complaint), I ended up truly loving it.

And if you listen carefully, you should be able to guess the details of the project I’m working on at the moment. Of which more anon…

Google in China, Pt. 3

I’m enjoying some of the early comment on Google’s announcement that it no longer intends to censor When Google first went into China back in 2006, I predicted that both Chinese-sponsored cybercrime and user privacy were likely to feature in future twists in the tale of Google in China. The company appears to be performing much better than the subtext of this piece implied it would. So hats off, I guess.

One thing I’d like to know is what’s happened to Google’s 2.4% stake in Baidu – the search engine with majority market share in China – in the intervening years since I wrote this piece. Answers sent over https to my gmail account, please!

Back from hols

I’m back from two weeks in Crete. Not much to say, beyond highlighting this advert, seen by my traveling partner on the train to Cambridge, the last strecth of a long journey home.

Advert on a train

For the benefit of those who can’t read the blurry text accompanying this crazed image of a boxer in suit:

With over 2.5 million passengers spending an average of 3.5 hours per week on the train, Traincards are the most effective way of hitting the commuter rail audience.

I don’t think I’m unusally intolerant of advertising. But I have started to notice how intrusive traveling on the tube feels, in terms of the visual assault up the escalators, etc, now I’m just a visitor to London again. And on my flight back I can’t say I enjoyed staring at the text-heavy advertisement for Europcar that had been helpfully draped over every headrest for the benefit of the person sitting behind. After eight plus hours traveling through public space I did feel like I’d gone ten rounds. So thanks, KBH Transport Media et al. Now fuck off.

How it makes of your face a stone…

I have had Carol Ann Duffy’s first poem as laureate – Politics – stuck up on my fridge since it was published in June. Tucked somewhere within it is the reason I decided I’d had enough of lobbying in Westminster and Brussels and handed in my notice at the Open Rights Group.

Today, Lord Mandelson has occasioned a re-reading of this excellent verse. His Department for Business has released a statement detailing an “evolution in their thinking” on the issue of how to tackle illicit sharing of copyrighted files across peer to peer networks. The aspect of this evolution that has caught the attention of the popular press is that disconnecting internet connections (the “three-strikes and you’re out” model recently ruled unconstitutional in France) is now back on the table. Given this, I’m not sure the word “evolution” or even, for that matter, “thinking” applies.

Shall we pretend this matters? Shall we again list the reasons why excluding – punitively, yet without due process – British citizens from the most transformative communications medium of the last several hundred years is a poor policy response to the failure of an over-consolidated and outmoded industry to adapt their business practices to consumer demand?

Mandelson is not the first Minister at BIS/BERR/DTI to believe, no doubt after a few visits from some sexy people in the record / movie industries, that the illicit filesharing issue needs nothing more than his personal political touch for it all to be solved. Not politics, then, so much as vanity. On the bright side, as the complexities of this issue reveal themselves once more, and Mandy’s self-belief fades as quickly as his suntan, at least the resulting public failure to deliver on this “evolution” might prove humiliating enough to permanently mark the “three strikes” model with Whitehall’s “Here Be Dragons” stamp, ensuring that even the most cloth-eared Tory successor would be unlikely to go near it come next year. Although of course, to ensure this happens, we should all continue supporting the work of my less jaded and remarkably patient former colleagues at the Open Rights Group.

In the meantime, the civil servants at BIS tasked with delivering actual workable policies on this issue must be sighing heavily and mentally postponing their retirement again today.

Birthday present

It was my birthday on Saturday. Of all the beautiful, thoughtful gifts I received, I thought this one was definitely worth a blog post:

I love the “hoodie” picture that is used to illustrate this product.

Although I’m pretty confident this was bought for me in jest, it seems that a roaring trade is done in professional-looking CCTV cameras online. This site, for example, boasts:

“For a fraction of the price of real security cameras, you could implement an effective deterrant to criminals and when our replica cameras are used in conjunction with the CCTV Camera Warning Signs listed below, the effectiveness of the whole system is increased for your benefit and peace of mind.”

Very little comprehensive study has been invested in the effectiveness of CCTV cameras real or fake, but it’s understood that CCTV only has a minimal impact on crime and disorder. This 2002 review of the evidence from NACRO [.pdf] gives some idea of where we’re at in terms of understanding if constant surveillance is a price worth paying…

Tom Watson on illicit filesharing

In last weekend’s Independent on Sunday:

Instead of consulting on the best way to criminalise seven million UK citizens, wouldn’t it be better if we spent time asking these questions? We might have more chance of coming up with interventions that will nurture 21st-century creative talent, and not just restore 20th-century incumbents to their position of power.

You can read an extended version of the article (with accompanying comment love-in) on Tom’s blog.


Book JacketI took some time about reading Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture. It appeared on my desk when I was working at openDemocracy, which is at least two and a half years ago, and most likely more. The feeling I got when I received it has never left me: that this book was a secret messaage sent especially to me.

Nonetheless, it took me this long to read it, mostly because it is written densely, in an academic style. Fred Turner is assistant professor in the Department of Commnuication at Stanford University, at least he was at the time this book was published (2006). Perservering with his book has paid off.

The book tracks a period of time between the early 1960s and the late 1990s, focussing on the activities of Stewart Brand and the communities he encountered during his extensive career as a social entrpreneur, from his experience with the Merry Pranksters to his founding of the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, an early San Francisco-based BBS. The books is subtitled “Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism”. In particular, Turner demonstrates how Brand brought to a popular audience the activities of both the New Communalist, back-to-the-land movement and the experiments in distributed computing of the latter day Cold War military-academic-industrial complex, using the common contact language he established to do so in order to frame an early, influential strand of information politics which extended to liberal economics, workforce reform… and the dotcom crash.

The book celebrates and illuminates key moments in the history of the digital age, including Douglas Engelbert’s “Mother of All Demos” of 1968 (which Brand filmed), a 1972 photo feature, shot by Anne Liebowitz for Rolling Stone magazine, in which Brand describes the oncoming personal computer revolution as “the best news since psychedelics”, the 1990 online encounter between John Perry Barlow and young New York hackers Masters of Deception, and Wired‘s 1997 cover story “The Long Boom”, which is subtitled thus:

“We’re facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world. You got a problem with that?”

I’d like to do another blog poast about that shortly. But in the mean time I suggest you swot up here.

Upside Down Management

I can’t count the number of times I’ve said that to get public service right, Guv need to put the power to change stuff in the hands of people working at the front line. Most recently, in this piece in the New Statesman, I wrote:

“You cannot fix society with computers. People fix society, if you let them. That means freeing nurses, teachers, social workers – and their clients – from the relentless tyranny of Whitehall’s cravings for ever more information. A benevolent state must have a human face, not an unblinking screen.”

So I really enjoyed yesterday’s edition of Peter Day’s always excellent In Business, which is about the management structure of Timpsons, the chain of over 500 cobblers and key cutters.

Chairman of the business, John Timpson, gives real power to the people who run each of his shops, including giving them up to £500 to solve a problem without having to ask up the chain of command, and setting their own prices. He sees his job as spreading the individual innovations this leads each store to come up with across the entire chain.

It’s also interesting to hear Timpson’s attitudes towards digital tills – despite the fact that this technology has “revolutionised modern retail” (Day’s words) Timpson’s shops don’t have them. He believes they get in the way of the customer relationship.