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Last Knight

Having gone nowhere with my application for The House of Lords last year, my attempt to gain a place in the Queen’s birthday honours list failed miserably. I had thought the photo of Nelson Mandela and me, together with the inclusion of a fifty-pound postal order and my own special Jubilee curry recipe would have done the trick but not this year, as more deserving souls were ahead of me in the queue.

I had thought, in an earlier column, that taking a scene from ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ ,The Home Secretary wouldn’t dare volunteer poor Bob Ainsworth for television duty again, following his performance against Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. I even suggested as much in a private conversation in an office not far from Whitehall but hoping for ‘Second time lucky”, the Minister was once again placed in goal for Radio 4’s World at One with predictable results.

And then, the penny dropped and Mr Blunkett decided that his guide dog had greater television appeal than his deputy – a BBC Producer’s comment – and the pair of them decided to announce the Government’s hasty retreat from the ill-considered RIP legislation together

I wonder, if like me, you sometimes despair over our politicians’ grasp of technology? Now, at least we have a computer-savvy eMinister, Stephen Timms, who has a respectable IT background, and Patricia Hewitt is a smart lady, there’s little doubt about that. But the Home Office appears to be a law unto itself and both beards and bad attitude appear to be mandatory and this isn’t simply my opinion.

There’s little doubt that we need legislation that can balance the interests of national security and the criminal justice systems against the open nature of the Internet. Achieving this requires intelligent debate and a fundamental understanding of the technology and its direction. I’ve sat in the House of Commons on two occasions now, listening to committee debates on Internet security and left feeling deeply pessimistic.

Unable to clearly frame the nature of the threat and the technical challenges that accompany it, Government’s answer is the legislative equivalent of the baseball bat. Blunt, unsubtle and wildly indiscriminate in its application. These days, we talk a great deal about eGovernment and eDemocracy and both imply a greater degree of involvement and a novel kind of relationship between Government and citizen, one, which is quite contrary to the idea of using legislation as bludgeon.

If the law isn’t fit for purpose then Government, shouldn’t follow the example of some very large IT companies and try and sell it to us on the basis that we accept shaky legislation today and hope, that the guidelines – Parliamentary jargon for a Service Pack - when published, will resolve all the bugs.

There, I suppose goes any chance of a mention in next year’s honours list but perhaps if I work on being more unprincipled and inarticulate than I am already my chances might improve!

Notes to Editors:

1) The Foundation for Information Policy Research (www.fipr.org), is a
non-profit think-tank for Internet and Information Technology policy,
governed by an independent Board of Trustees with an Advisory Council
of experts.

2. The only independent oversight of this part of the RIP Act is
provided by the Interception Commissioner, but as no central records
are kept of accesses, he must travel around every police force and
agency inspecting a random sample of their records.

3. Alan Beith MP of the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee told
Parliament in 2001 that the commissioner was "dependent on a tiny
support structure which is quite incapable of carrying out the job...
there was not even anybody to open the mail, let alone process it,
for many months."

see Hansard 29 Mar 2001, Col 1150


4. The order, now abandoned, is at:

5. A RIP s22 notice will reveal details held by a communications service
provider such as...

name and address
service usage details
details of who you have been calling
details of who has called you
mobile phone location info
source and destination of email
usage of web sites (but not pages within such sites)

6. The current list of bodies allowed to serve RIP s22 notices is:

Police (all the forces, MOD police, NCS, NCIS)
Secret Intelligence Agencies (MI5, MI6, GCHQ)
Customs and Excise
Inland Revenue

7. The order was to extend the list of public authorities that can issue
RIP s22 notices (ie to access traffic data from telcos and ISPs)...

...to add the following central Government departments

1. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
2. The Department of Health.
3. The Home Office.
4. The Department of Trade and Industry.
5. The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.
6. The Department for Work and Pensions.
7. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for Northern
Ireland.

AND pretty much any local authority

8. Any local authority within the meaning of section 1 of the Local
Government Act 1999
9. Any fire authority as defined in the Local Government (Best Value)
Performance Indicators Order 2000
10. A council constituted under section 2 of the Local Government etc.
(Scotland) Act 1994
11. A district council within the meaning of the Local Government Act
(Northern Ireland) 1972

AND NHS bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland

12. The Common Services Agency of the Scottish Health Service.
13. The Northern Ireland Central Services Agency for the Health and
Social Services.

AND some other bodies

14. The Environment Agency.
15. The Financial Services Authority.
16. The Food Standards Agency.
17. The Health and Safety Executive.
18. The Information Commissioner.
19. The Office of Fair Trading.
20. The Postal Services Commission.
21. The Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency.
22. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency.
23. The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary.
24. A Universal Service Provider within the meaning of the Postal
Services Act 2000

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