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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

ACS:Law part one - the human cost

[part two] [part three]

When I phoned Alexander Hanff of Privacy International yesterday to talk about the massive leak of sensitive personal data from ACS:Law I didn't expect him to literally write part one of this three-part series.

But he did, in one quote: 
“This data loss is significant because of the human angle. Besides being the first time I can remember where leaked personal data from the UK has been made so readily available on the internet we must also consider the nature of the data leaked."

"Credit card details are one thing - and there are procedures for limiting financial loss - but some of the strongest human emotions are driven by sexuality and attitudes to porn."

"Marriages can be wrecked through – sometimes wrongful – suggestions that a partner may have viewed pornography.  Beyond the potential for criminals to blackmail workers in sensitive posts is also the human anxiety over being accepted for their sexual orientation in what is still a very judgemental society”
It's probably the largest and most significant personal data leak in UK history.  Whilst other leaks have potentially affected far more - on paper at least - most reported data losses are just that; the data has been lost and never found... Or lost, handed to a journalist and returned to the owner.

When I started talking about the significance of this leak and its potential for becoming a watershed event a friend was sceptical:
"If the scandal of 25 million records leaking from HMRC failed to change people's attitudes to private information and data protection I doubt this will."
Yet few (if any) leaks result in lists of thousands of names and addresses being readily available on the internet alongside sensitive information, financial details or embarrassing titles of explicit pornographic movies someone using their internet connection is alleged to have downloaded.

Andrew Sharpe, a solicitor highly-experienced in data protection issues at law firm Charles Russell told me:
Whilst we've advised clients in the past on dealing with the aftermath of a data loss I can't recall any loss which has actually resulted in personally identifiable information being published online or used in any way. Most loss events I'm aware of are in relation to improper disposal, loss or theft of laptops or similar and the data never actually surfaces”
Beyond the nuts and bolts of data protection for firms handling sensitive data and the rights and wrongs of chasing those alleged to have infringed another's copyright with an "opportunity" to avoid a court case - whereby your name would be linked to the downloading of a pornographic movie whose title leaves little to the imagination - are two moral questions I'll be exploring in the next two parts of this series.

The Private Data Police

Should society accept a growing "private police force" tasked with policing content on the internet, especially when this force - a combination of ISPs, solicitors and internet firms specialising in "infringement detection" - compile lists and databases of those accused as an unavoidable aspect of their "police" role?

The opportunity for such roles is likely to increase, not decrease, when the provisions of the Digital Economy Act come into force.  How will the private police be regulated to ensure there are strict controls over access to sensitive databases of personal information, and how can we ensure that justice ultimately is left to the court system and not a tariff of unofficial fines governed by market forces?

The Cyber-mob

Do the darker - many would say criminal - elements of the internet assist or harm wider efforts to force private companies to respect sensitive personal data?  I'm convinced that without a concerted distributed denial of service attack on ACS:Law's website the data leak would probably not have occurred*

However, the subsequent wide distribution of personal data, with several websites now offering easy-to-read versions of the data, clearly showing names and addresses alongside the often explicit title of the movie they're alleged to have downloaded - only adds to the distress of these individuals.

Yet some have suggested the wider distribution lifts the data out of the hands of the so-called "black hat" cyber criminals skilled in finding and manipulating such data and into the mainstream. Will this reduce or increase the prospect of some individuals being the subject of further crimes such as blackmail?

Would a strict data breach notification law whereby companies are legally obliged to notify all those affected by a data breach prevent those posting personal data in the belief that in increasing publicity they're doing good?

@JamesFirth

[part two] [part three]

* It's my opinion that the email leak was possibly the direct result of an attempt to re-start limited communication services during a DDoS attack on ACS:Law's website by their systems administrator(s) or web host.  Since it's now apparent that email services were provided on the same server as that used for ACS:Law's public website one can understand that the company may have been in a hurry to re-establish some services.  

As part of the process it appears as though a backup containing user's internal email storage was exposed for a brief window.  

This view is personal opinion only based on the information available in the public domain.

Xmarks learns a hard lesson in "free"

Xmarks, the bookmark synchronisation service for Firefox, will close in 90 days according to a post on its blog on Sunday.

The company's founder, Todd Agulnick, says:
"For four years we have offered the synchronization service for no charge, predicated on the hypothesis that a business model would emerge to support the free service"
And:
"The past four years have been a wild ride for us: growing something from nothing to substantial scale, providing a simple service that people love because it simplifies their lives."
I've used Xmarks - Foxmarks as it was back then - since soon after its launch almost four years ago.  Its demise raises yet again the question of funding for independent "micro services".  That is: mirco in the functionality they offer, not the size of their user-base (reported to be 2 million users).

For a service like Xmarks ad funding was never a realistic option.  How would the ads be delivered? Users would surely take umbrage at finding a sponsored link or similar sat atop their collection of personal bookmarks.

As Todd explores in his detailed blog post, freemium (free, with premium extras) also became a distant possibility with "free" - or packaged as part of e.g. smartphone OSs - synchronisation services appearing from multiple vendors.

In my mind the only realistic option for Xmarks would be to run the service for free indefinitely as a marketing tool for the company's other saleable products, whether that be consulting services, a corporate intranet synchronisation option or a completely unrelated product.

The CTO of Xmarks, Inc. talks of lessons learned by making "big mistakes".  By that he may be referring to synchronisation problems as users upgraded between certain versions of Xmarks or other serious customer-affecting glitches I noticed along the way. 

To be honest Xmarks faired better than most on this front.  My observation would be the relentless drive to improve the service beyond what I as a customer needed came at the expense of securing the business in the long term.

Once freemium and ad-funding had been ruled out the company needed to focus on selling something else off the back of their profile and reputation gained through the success of Xmarks, rather than continue to expand the basic service.  I haven't used one single additional feature that wasn't in the early releases of Foxmarks - for example I don't sync my passwords on security grounds.

Yes, it's easy for me to to add my 2p's worth of hindsight, but the death of Xmarks - a popular service and one of the first to market - needs to be studied to better understand how and indeed whether small independent software+service providers can survive.

So farewell then, Xmarks - I for one will miss you.

@JamesFirth

Friday, 24 September 2010

Reputations, web shadows and superheroes at Digital Surrey

I must admit my eyes glaze over when I hear someone is going to talk about generic aspects of the interactive web. I must have seen/heard/read a hundred similar-sounding talks and, being online since before the www, I'm burdened with a relatively unhealthy degree of scepticism.
 
But I wouldn't miss a Digital Surrey talk if I could avoid it - not through blind loyalty, being there at the start and all, but because I trust Abigail Harrison and the team at The Blue Door to come up with an interesting and entertaining speaker.

Enter Antony Mayfield, author of Me and my Web Shadow.  Antony is one of those speakers I instantly like from the first sentence.  Witty, entertaining and interesting he steered my sometimes cynical mind to re-evaluate what I thought I already understood and introduced quite a few new concepts and some fascinating facts.

Antony's delivery walked a fine line between not sounding like a social media guru without resorting to an over-cynical or mocking tone, managing to make light of the buzzwords and bullshit that comes with the social media scene whilst acknowledging he was part of the same scene.

The centrepiece of his talk last night is his "9 rules" for managing your web shadow. I won't regurgitate his talk, which should be available for free on Slide Share any time soon now, or even summarise his 9 rules, available as a free chapter from his book.

What follows is not a report on Antony's talk but a mix of his topics and ideas and my own follow-up thoughts.  I've quoted and credited wherever I've used direct snippets from the talk.

The employer/employee relationship has changed - and not simply because employers have the tools to research potential recruits, but also employees can do their own research and find out what it's like to work at a company before applying.

Furthermore corporate ethics come under the spotlight not solely to impress customers and clients but also to encourage talented employees to join the team.  Would I want to work for a company with a poor environmental record or a history of writing insecure software that gathered and leaked personal data?

Burning bridges can affect the employer more than the employee.  Sure the individual may be short of work in future, but an employer who burns bridges not only cuts themselves off from the potential benefits of that ex-employers social network, but also risks a negative impact on their reputation from disgruntled employees empowered by their personal network - networks usually consisting of a fair proportion of people in the same industry.

The PR department has changed.  Acknowledge that no-one can "control" information once more than a handful of people have access.  PR is now the responsibility of every employee, and whilst this probably won't mark the end of the PR department, companies need to face this reality in order to harness the power of their employee network and gain access to their employees' networks.

"Social networks are human spaces and you need to be human to live in them" (Mayfield).  There's a limit to what a handful of PR professionals can achieve online, why muzzle your ready-made network of employees when you can let them loose? (Firth).  I'm going to explore this topic in a later blog post.

"Get a thicker skin" (Mayfield) - people are going to say bad things about you.  Even your close circle of contacts, your employees or employer.  Don't waste your time and energy fighting the bad, do something else positive and make sure more people know about the good stuff.  This I think is particularly applicable if you're an employer considering encouraging all your staff to talk openly online about their jobs.

On the same subject, the somewhat dangerous precedent being set by a group of hotels considering legal action against Trip Adviser over negative reviews.  Apart from the civil liberty implications to free speech, the legal move itself could be a PR disaster.  Anyone considering such an action risks having disputed negative statements dragged-up and tested in court.  What if the court finds in favour of said negative comments?

Not only that, but even if action is successful in muzzling one review site, the internet has proved quite capable at routing around censorship.  Other sites will be established in oversees territories outside the jurisdiction of UK courts.  Such action is in my mind futile.

"Let's not kid ourselves about the value of our own intellectual property" (Mayfield).  The human species has a history of survival through sharing.  We help the young, the weak and the elderly and are stronger as a species for this.

When translated into the digital sphere Antony said advocacy of concepts such as Creative Commons often lead to accusations of being a digital hippy.  "Well, I do live in Brighton," exclaimed Mayfield!

But there's a hard-nosed business case for sharing in that, given the right conditions, something we set free for sharing can repay many times over in terms of increased reputation.

The Best Training Course in the Whole World

Example - I have a fantastic training course and associated notes.  I can choose to keep the notes, the cornerstone of my unique and valuable offering protected - or give the whole course, including notes, away to anyone who finds them online.

Instinctively in business many opt for protectionism - to keep what we think are our valuable assets secure.

I opt to protect my intellectual property but business is slow. I'm not getting many bookings for The Best Training Course in the Whole World.  So I take out a series of adverts and find I'm re-investing 33% of my fees in advertising just to fill my diary and make a living.

Q. Who's heard of The Best Training Course in the Whole World?
A. Everyone who's ever been on the course, plus the people who hired you to give the course.

One day I decide to give the course notes and materials away for free.  Another company hears from an attendee on an earlier course, downloads my notes, gives me a call but can't afford my fee.  So they launch their own version, in-house, but using my notes.  It's a blow but it's not lost revenue for me - they can't afford my fees!

But what if said company starts to sell my training course cheaper than me?  And they do!

I now have a rival! My unique niche offering is out there.  How very dare they, they're now making money from my intellectual property! (Note - they did bring something to the party, they're making a business work around my training course, a business I was struggling myself to grow).

But strangely enough the phone is ringing and I'm getting many more bookings.  There are now four companies out there selling my invention - but my phone is now always ringing!  True I had to drop my prices 20% but I've completely stopped advertising, giving me a net gain.

Okay, this is a parable.  It's just one view, but I firmly believe you can and will benefit from the buzz around your product even though others are able to capitalise off your idea.  Your rivals are also your allies, helping find new markets and improving your product and reputation.

Your increased profit comes because of increased reputation through sharing, not despite sharing.

@JamesFirth

P.S. And other than the title, I didn't mention superheroes once... Whoops!

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Cuts in context - UK public spending since 1900

I'm broadly in favour of a round of cuts to public spending for a couple of reasons.  I believe when a government gets too large it can impinge on civil liberties - both through "nanny state" over-regulation and through an increase in resources for security services to monitor and track individuals (beyond that strictly necessary for national security and the prevention of terrorism).  I also feel a round of cuts will help trim excesses and force government departments to evaluate what their respective priorities should be.

Whilst I'm not a professional economist I'm also not naive - I know heavy cuts can affect local, regional and even national economies when a large number of jobs are lost.  Cuts in purchasing affect the whole supply chain and suppliers could ultimately be put out of business.

But as a project manager and inventor of budget control tools I also know about Parkinson's Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.  Since time and money are somewhat interchangeable (in a professional setting, at least) a consequence of this adage is that spending expands to fill the available budget.

Over the last few years I've seen first-hand how public money has been wasted on fruitless projects and empire building to bolster the careers of department chiefs.

Yet I've just debunked a third reason why I thought public spending should be cut.  I recall numerous press stories throughout the last year or so which had me believe that public spending must be at an all time high.

I compiled the above graph from data published on ukpublicspending.co.uk.  It shows total government spending (central and local) since 1900 as a percentage of GDP.  In case of error I compared the data to an IFS study (PDF) which shows a similar picture from 1900-2000.  The picture to the right is an extract from the IFS report.

Yes, the data clearly shows that we are near to a peacetime record high.  Yet whilst there is a clear up-tick in public spending since 1997, the current level of public spending (around 45% of GDP) fits a long-term trend in the growth of the public sector.

Intuitively I feel a round of cuts will be beneficial in the long term, if only to consolidate after the substantial increase in public spending over the last 13 years.  But having looked at the data I'm less concerned about what some newspapers had described as the "relentless march of state spending".

Modern life is far more complex than in 1900.  Maybe I need to accept therefore that more money today needs to be spent by government e.g. to ensure technology is available to schools, complex medical treatments are available through the NHS and technological and scientific research is properly funded.

@JamesFirth

Monday, 20 September 2010

Tweet Delete Policy

I decided today that I was going to delete all my old tweets, and only keep the last month or so on my stream.  Because Twitter doesn't offer intelligent bulk delete options I started by wiping my entire stream, including the last month, using TwitWipe (a tortuous process due to bugs in TwitWipe - plus retweets need to be manually deleted).

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear, eh?! (If you believe that, read this first.)

Here's a list of my reasons why I feel this is a sound policy:
1.) Tweets are of the moment, and much of what I tweet about is pretty much redundant even a day after the tweet, never mind a few years.
2.) It's very easy to take a tweet out of context, especially given the limited number of characters to clarify.  It's too easy for someone to quote a single tweet of mine out of context and misrepresent my intentions.
3.) I treat remarks on twitter like spoken conversation.  Why would I want a permanent record of every word I ever spoke?  As per the first two points I want to be free to discuss what's on my mind today and not have some future person or application trawl through my tweets from the last 2 years and put me in some box or other.
4.) I don't think I have anything to hide. (Have I said that enough, yet?) But too many people are having their lives disrupted due to throw-away comments made on Twitter.  Examples include Paul Chambers, who's since lost two jobs due to a single misguided tweet,  John Dixon, a councillor facing investigation by Wales' public standards watchdog for a tweet about Scientology, and Kevin Pietersen, who was fined by the England and Wales Cricket Board for what I thought was a perfectly understandable outburst posted in the heat of the moment.  Many more examples are emerging of ordinary people being judged by throw-away comments analysed after the fact.
5.) 99% Boring - with so many thousands of tweets in my stream the good stuff - or at least the tweets I think others should be interested in - are lost.  I'm going to try and wipe the chaff on a regular basis, but this may prove too much hard work.

I'm not sure whether this is the right move, but I'm going to give it a try.  If you have any thoughts please feel free to comment below.. (And then return in a month to delete your comment!!)

@JamesFirth

Update 21-Sep-2010: Dan Benton questions whether tweets can actually be "deleted" and set up this fantastic experiment.  My initial thoughts on this were: I suspect they [these third-party services] have to honour deletes else open themselves up legally, e.g. in a libel claim.

If I make a libellous claim in a tweet, then any other publisher who repeats that claim could be pursued for damages as a co-defendant.  I could enter an agreement with the claimant to delete said tweet - and, as is most likely, publish an apology - in exchange for the case being dropped.  Services re-publishing my tweets and not honouring delete notifications could themselves be the subject of legal action.

Knowing a few publishers as I do I know they have means to get indexed and cached search results of web pages removed from search engines in a reasonably prompt fashion on the few occasions articles are removed under threat of legal action.  I suspect these search engines play by similar rules.

But I'm eagerly awaiting the results of Dan's experiment.

PS Dan - who told you to play nice, and would you otherwise not have played nice ;-)

Scottish and Southern Energy plc

A rather anonymous company named Southern Gas Networks is about to start yet another phase of essential gas main replacement works in Farnham, this time on Station Hill.

It's rather convenient that the company responsible for notifying residents and planning to minimise disruption during the works is not a domestic supplier of energy.  Of course I wouldn't want to suggest that this fact would affect how Southern Gas Networks views relations with residents during the works.

But it is worth pointing out that Southern Gas Networks is owned by a holding company, Scotia Gas Networks.

And it's also worth pointing out that Scotia Gas Networks is, according to Wikipedia at the time of publication, 50% owned by Scottish and Southern Energy plc, who some readers may recognise as their domestic supplier of energy.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

URGENT: Farnham mass walk to help protect local fields from development

The Farnham Herald today reports that these fantastic fields behind the UCA are under threat from developers.  The paper suggests permission could be sought for 200 or more homes, and names Wimpey as a developer with an option to build on the land.

UPDATE 18/09/10: The field under threat is not the field pictured, but a field to the south and west (bottom left of the picture).  Apologies for any confusion, original communication sent to me described the location as "behind UCA".

The fields were ploughed this summer, erasing all traces of footpaths which criss-cross the site.  My wife and I tried to walk back into Farnham via this route earlier in the summer and found it impossible to pick up our usual path (as per the update the above field was also ploughed earlier this summer).

Local residents have suggested the ploughing may be a tactic to deter walkers accessing the fields and therefore prevent the argument that the fields are used for recreation being used when planning permission is sought, however a local farmer who leases the field denied this in an interview with the Herald.

How you can help - urgent appeal

A "mass walk" and photo shoot with The Farnham Herald will be held this Saturday, 18th September at 10am.

The North West Farnham Residents' Association need as many people as possible to attend, please be encouraged to bring your family, children and dogs.

Meet promptly at 10am at the field entrance which is at the entrance to the University car park, just off Beavers road for the photo, then the official footpaths will be walked for approx 20 minutes for those who can stay.

@JamesFirth

So farewell, then, Next Farnham

Next in Farnham is now shut.  Depending on who takes over the premises this could be a significant blow to Farnham's retail sector.

Clearly Farnham is not a major "shopping destination", I won't pretend as much, however residents of surrounding villages face a choice between a short journey into Farnham or a longer journey to - most likely - Guildford, and I feel shops like Next swing the balance towards the local choice.

A spokesperson from Next confirmed this morning that the shop had closed for good, citing "the end of our lease over the premises".

As can be seen from the photograph I took this morning, the store is still advertised as "To Let", indicating perhaps there are other reasons why Next are leaving town.

I'm worried that continued uncertainty over the future of the town centre, namely the stalled plans to redevelop East Street, are reducing the appeal of Farnham for retailers.

Next were quick to point towards the opening of a major new store in Bracknell.  I can see how a PR professional may be keen to quell any question of the chain downsizing and the Next press office in Leicester can perhaps be forgiven for being unaware that residents of Farnham are unlikely to make a 40-mile round trip to Bracknell, what with a substantial Next store only 7 miles away in Farnborough Gate and another 10 miles away in Guildford.

On the plus side, Next confirmed no staff had lost their jobs with the store closure as all had relocated to other stores.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Station Hill Closure: Residents' concerns put to Southern Gas Networks and Surrey County Council

Residents and local business owners have expressed concerns about the timing and lack of consultation over the closure of Station Hill in Farnham from 20th September for 6 weeks to allow a gas main to be replaced.

Javed, pictured, from Station Hill Stores is concerned about the impact on his business from the closure and subsequent likely congestion across south Farnham.  He asks why the works cannot be delayed until the summer holiday of 2011, when local peak-hours traffic is noticeably lighter when the schools are closed for summer.

Another business owner who doesn't wish to be named is concerned about the possible closure of parking bays in Station Hill and claims that, bar a short leaflet, no-one has taken the time to explain in detail how the closure will affect them and their business or ask for their views.

Residents and business owners are also concerned about the potential for widespread congestion across south Farnham during peak hours and the lack of advanced notification for this - the third attempt- to complete these essential gas works.

The simple answer is that these works are unavoidable and it is necessary to close the road in order to replace the old cast iron gas main.  But questions remain on the timing, apparent lack of consultation with some residents, and reasonably short notice period.

A spokesperson from Surrey County Council told me this morning that the council had tried very hard to take on board the concerns of residents.  Specifically they had requested [presumably after it became apparent that the works couldn't be completed in summer 2010] that the works be delayed until summer 2011, however they were informed by Southern Gas Networks (SGN) that the works could not wait until next summer.

On the issue of notification the spokesperson told me "it is the responsibility of the utility company [SGN] to communicate with residents" but explained specific demands were made for schools, "we insisted before the summer holidays they [SGN] told the schools what was going to happen, so that the schools didn't come back surprised [by the road closure] ... and Southern Gas produced a leaflet which they distributed to the schools so they were aware.  We also asked them [SGN] not to start on the very first day of term so the schools had a chance to ease themselves back in before they started."

Yet a resident of nearby Southern Way claims they only received notification of the most recent planned start date via a leaflet (posted here) sometime after the start of September.  This raises the question why schools were notified before the summer break but at least some residents had to wait 6 weeks before they were informed.

I spoke to SGN before I interviewed Surrey County Council so I've been unable to put the specific point about the alleged late notification of some residents.  I've put in a request for clarification with their press office and will update this post if anyone gets back to me.

A spokesperson from Southern Gas Networks explained to me on Monday that the works, originally scheduled for the end of March 2010, were first postponed until summer after listening to and taking on board the concerns of residents.

The spokesman explained that a complication arose due to a clash with works occurring over summer in Weydon Lane - Network Rail works - and also separate works after that in Echo Barn Lane, and the council made a request that the works be postponed for a second time.

"The reason the works can't wait until summer next year [2011] is that the work involves replacing old metal gas mains with new plastic pipes and we need to get this project done now - it's already been postponed twice - and we're carrying out the work to ensure a safe gas supply for everyone. Whilst the gas main remains safe at the moment, the works do need to happen now."

After talking to everyone concerned I feel it's absolutely clear that both SGN and Surrey County Council have done their utmost to try and minimise the disruption.

SGN listened to initial concerns back in spring, yet due to the unfortunate yet somewhat unforeseeable conflict were forced to postpone a second time.

The residents and business owners affected do have legitimate worries, and are absolutely right to raise their concerns - but having looked at the facts I don't see what else can be done.  The works can't wait until next summer, so I feel the question now moves onto whether any practical steps can be taken to ease the predicted pain, notably at the point the A287 meets Arthur Road and Alfred Road at Firgrove Hill.

I'm somewhat reassured that the issue was discussed at Farnham Town Council meeting on 9th September.  An attendee at the meeting reports that possible measures to ease congestion were discussed, including having police on hand to direct traffic during peak times if congestion gets out of hand.

I also wonder whether some temporary parking restrictions, for example along Arthur Road, might ease the way for those who choose not to follow the official diversion.  Or, taking self interest into account, ease the way for me and my fellow residents in the Weydon area given the likely increase in traffic!

@JamesFirth

Monday, 13 September 2010

Station Hill to be closed for 6 weeks from 20th September 2010

Potential traffic chaos to hit Farnham and yes, that's next week!

A resident of Southern Way sent me a tip that twice rescheduled gas main replacement works have now been rescheduled to start 20th September.

Local business owners and residents I interviewed over the weekend are displeased to say the least.  This afternoon I put their concerns to a spokesman from Southern Gas Networks who will be carrying out the works.  I'll write more about this tomorrow once I have comment from Surrey County Council. You can read more on this here.

The closure of Station Hill has the potential to bring severe traffic congestion throughout South Farnham, especially during the morning and evening commute.

First scheduled for spring 2010 the works were postponed after local residents expressed concern at the knock-on effect on nearby routes - already busy - being used as a diversion.

The works were rescheduled for summer during the school holidays, a period when evening and morning peak traffic levels in many urban areas drop-off due to the combined effect of school closures and commuters taking holiday over the summer.

But the rescheduled works conflicted with the closure over summer of Weydon Lane for bridge maintenance work, leaving Station Hill the one remaining (practical) diversion route for high vehicles, which cannot use the low bridge on the A325 at Wrecclesham.

Residents are surprised by the lack of notice and signage - I'll pick this up tomorrow - but some did recently receive a flyer from Southern Gas Networks. Content in the following images is the property and responsibility of Southern Gas Networks, reproduced below in full given the clear public interest.

UPDATE 14/Sept: large electronic "matrix" signs were erected on local routes Monday 13th September.

Click image to enlarge


The following is an enlargement from the map distributed by Southern Gas Networks:

Friday, 3 September 2010

No-one wins, just one side loses more slowly

-Prez, The Wire: Season 4, ep 4



Tip: always set your
voicemail PIN code!
The resurfacing of the Andy Coulson/News of the World phone hacking allegations is a right royal mess (if you'll excuse the pun) and it's one where I'm finding it surprisingly hard to take sides.

We know some phones were "hacked" (ie. voicemail accessed) - two were caught practically red-handed and served jail time.

And I personally believe it's highly likely that many more phones were "hacked", but I'm not overly concerned that police didn't pursue further cases and, in the absence of actual evidence beyond rumour and speculation I don't think failure to act is necessarily indicative of a conspiracy between the Met police and News International.

A few years ago I had a couple of my credit cards skimmed, on two separate occasions.  Thanks to a vigilant old man in Chiswick the police identified the actual machine where my card was copied and linked the theft of over a thousand pounds from my account to a gang using cash machines in Belgium.

In fact the trail was hot and the evidence was mounting.  I had regular updates from a keen Detective Sergeant and I personally contacted the Belgium police via the Belgian Embassy because at the time there was no practical official protocol for quickly exchanging info between UK and Belgian police forces.  I passed on messages and actually introduced the two detectives from either side of the channel to each other.

Then the investigation ended abruptly.  The detective on my case was re-assigned due to resource limitations and a lady from the Met's victim support team explained financial crimes were low priority since nobody got hurt and my bank had already refunded all my money given the weight of evidence for fraud.  A "victimless crime".  Which of course it isn't since we're all paying in some way through higher bank charges.

But I accept that any police force has to focus their limited resources.  I can accept that whilst some see the invasion of privacy rightly as a serious crime, the simple fact is there are even more serious crimes to investigate.  Just like I accept that my keen DS had to drop my case to work on a more pressing London crime.

I'm writing this as a digital rights activist and some time privacy campaigner, and I don't feel my stance here is duplicitous - because I feel there are worse invasions of privacy going on unnoticed everyday.  Invasions that potentially affect more of us and to a greater extent.

I see how the police may have come to the conclusion that the prosecution of Clive Goodman and Glen Mulcaire may act as a deterrent to others without the need to follow half-leads in the accused's notes or suspicions of other celebrities or politicians.

I remember being satisfied at the time that the prosecution, which received a great deal of media coverage, raised the profile of privacy issues in general.

But now Coulson's job as David Cameron's press secretary brings substantial political overtones.  No fewer than four Labour heavyweights have made statements in the past few days calling for an enquiry.  Forgive me a dose of cynicism here but this affair exploded under Labour's watch back in 2006.

The party political activity alerted my defences to the possibility of heavy spin from all sides.

The only ground I'm sure about is if - and I do mean if - there's a suspicion that police officers of any rank were involved, either in the supply of personal or privileged information to reporters, or in any subsequent cover up; then this must be vigorously pursued with an impartial and independent investigation.

Of course I've seen no proof to support this, and therein lies a bit of a Catch-22, but the spectre of possible police corruption must never become a pawn in a party-political game.  I've seen at close quarters how police corruption can wreck communities and rooting out anyone who puts personal profit before the rule of law must surely be a priority for all politicians, whatever their party.