Wednesday, 15 July 2009

There are orders that should not be obeyed

There has been much discussion of what the soldiers in Afghanistan should expect from the government. I have no intention of going into the rights and wrongs of that war - it should be sufficient to point to the history of wars in that country, and to remind you that the Khyber Pass in between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The lesson from history would be that no-one ever wins a war in that area...

But this blog posting is not about that.

A friend of mine pointed me to the Oathkeepers website. This site is US centric, and attempts to list those orders that a US soldier should not follow. On a similar line, the report from Breaking the Silence is worth a read. This is a campaign group that has gathered anonymous accounts of the Gaza conflict from an increasing number of Israeli soldiers.

The idea of the Oathkeepers could be taken more generally, to show the responsibility of everyone to uphold the law above and beyond any orders they are given: something fundamental to Geneva Conventions and post WWII principles.

So is I was only obeying orders a defence?

This is sometimes known as the Nuremburg Defence (Principle IV). It was clearly not a defence at Nuremburg, nor in a number of trials since. This is a problem for governments and the military.

I would suggest that the time has come for us all to agree that there are orders that no-one should follow. The interesting thing is that it would solve other problems as well - it might well mean that our troops were not in Afghanistan - and that they would not have been in Iraq...

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Capitalists take the profits, the tax payer takes the losses

Reuters reports today that:
The British government is to delay the publication of a report into the collapse of carmaker MG Rover in 2005 pending an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, British media reported on Sunday.
It would appear that much of the money that was pumped in to Rover ended up in the pockets or pension funds of the "Phoenix Four" - this is the fraud. Yes, that was an accusation - please sue me John Towers, John Edwards, Nick Stephenson or Peter Beale.

Last week, we heard that National Express, or rather its specially constructed subsidiary, had abandoned or been stripped of its loss making franchise, while keeping the profitable ones. So clearly, it is fine to bid for three franchises and then walk away from the one that is going to cost you money.

A brief analysis of Lloyds Bank's dividend history, would appear to indicate that that the bank had been paying around 12% to its shareholders for a substantial period. So once again, the capitalists take the profit and now the tax payer is saddled with the losses.

In all of these cases we see that the government is simply incapable of preventing the capitalists from screwing the tax payer. Alternatively, we could assume that the government is intent on supporting these people and giving them money, while taxing the more honest worker.

Mind you, British Airways and British Telecom seem to be taking this in-house and giving the earnings to the shareholders and executives in times of plenty and then asking the employees to bail them out when they hit trouble.

This is just unfair

Capitalists will tell you that they are paid huge returns because they take risks. This is clearly not the case in the current climate. The public have been transfixed by the MPs' expenses scandal, and seem to have forgotten the much bigger cockspiracy to support incompetant capitalists.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Greeenwash - this Power Station is carbon capture ready

we have left space in the design to add a carbon capture device.

As someone put it, "well, my drive is Ferrari ready". This is Greenwash at its most absurd:
  1. Its not 'carbon' capture, is is carbon dioxide that will be trapped.
  2. The energetics mean that even more coal will need to be burnt, as the capture process will require energy.
  3. The industrial scale process is unproven.
  4. The idea is that we can add on a new bit of technology and return to business as usual.
  5. I've heard no-one suggest that the emerging economies include carbon capture.
The truth is that the earth cannot sustain the western life-style for the western population, let alone extend it to the rest of the globe. The only way that we can survive with anything like the current population is to completely change our way of life. It needs to become:
  • simpler, based on the principle of 'enough';
  • based on something other than shopping/buying things to make people happy;
  • much more local, reducing traveling and moving goods (particularly food);
  • honest, we need politicians who are capable, and allowed to tell the truth;
  • more resilient, with small communities the centre of our lives.
So, how do I rate our chances of getting there? Well, as the old joke puts it, I wouldn't start from here...

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

NO2ID - barely a U-turn...

Alan Johnson announced that the ID Card scheme would not be compulsory, while repackaging it as a government scheme "Safeguarding Identity". At least this is not as bad as the April Fools story about RFID tags from Computer Weekly.

What does this actually mean?

Well, the government is still trying to produce a universal database on everyone in the UK. The data will mainly be captured when people (re-)apply for a passport.

Isabella Sankey, Director of Policy for Liberty, said:
“The Home Secretary needs to be clear as to whether entry onto the National Identity Register will continue to be automatic when applying for a passport. If so, the identity scheme will be compulsory in practice. However you spin it, big ears, four legs and a long trunk still make an elephant. And this white elephant would be as costly to privacy and race equality as to our purses.”
The clear fact is that we cannot trust the government with our personal data. There really is no need for this centralised system - the reasons that the establishment is pushing for its continuation are both philosophical and pragmatic...
  • Philosophy - the government has a grand, science-fiction type view of Transformational Government. In simple terms this is the ultimate extension of the 'nanny state'. They simply don't believe in individual freedom, they think they know best.
  • Pragmatic - those involved in the deployment of the ID Card scheme hope they can keep their jobs under a modified programme. Why they should want to give contracts for IT projects to the usual (incompetent) companies I would leave as a thought experiment for the reader.
Now is the time to apply pressure to your MP (particularly if you have a Labour MP) to cancel the database as well as the cards. Ask them to vote against the new statutory instruments that would allow the ID scheme to begin.

It is easy to contact your MP via

Those key regulations are:

The Identity Cards Act 2006 (Application and Issue of ID Card and Notification of Changes) Regulations 2009
[The detail that you will have to give to the Home Office about yourself, much much more than the "basic identifying information" ministers keep referring to.]

The Identity Cards Act 2006 (Prescribed Information) Regulations 2009
[What will be kept on the cards - but not yet anything about the national identity register database and how it might work.]

The Identity Cards Act 2006 (Designation) Order 2009
[The first of potentially many such. Provides for some people to be forced onto the system because joining will be a condition of applying for another official document that they need.]

The Identity Cards Act 2006 (Fees) Regulations 2009

The Identity Cards Act 2006 (Information and Code of Practice on Penalties) Order 2009
[The unfair rules that will be used to punish non-compliance.]

The Identity Cards Act 2006 (Provision of Information without Consent) Regulations 2009
[Sets out who the information may be passed to once the IPS has it. Audit trail information will go to: police, intelligence services, and SOCA, *and to anyone else they authorise* - so we are immediately beyond government promise - plus HMRC, who can't however authorise it to be given to third parties. Further, non-audit trail information - such as document numbers, names and addresses, signatures and fingerprints, quite enough to be keys for other searches or massive identity fraud - may be provided to the Home Office and MoJ, DWP, DoT and FCO. Records of what information has been given to whom and why may be destroyed after 12 months or less.]

The Immigration (Biometric Registration) (Amendment) Regulations 2009
[Expands the 'ID cards for foreigners' system vastly by extending it to more categories of people (for example, spouses of British citizens, visiting artists and academics) who are only being treated as a threat in order to justify ID cards for all.]

This list is taken from the NO2ID Newsletter.

Friday, 26 June 2009

How fragile is our society?

The UK's Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) recently published State of the Nation: Defending Critical Infrastructure. Having seen the press reports I eventually got around to looking at the original. Entertainingly, its publication nearly coincided with the Government's decision to announce (or admit) that it was steeping up its strategy to defend against (or initiate?) cyber-attacks.

It turns out that the BBC's report is a fair summary of the ICE original. The thing that strikes me is that we have 'sleep walked' into a position where so many things are fragile. Here are a few examples:
  • Many homes only have a central heating system that relies on both gas and electricity to work. Remove either in a cold snap and how many will freeze?
  • New supermarkets have almost no storage space. One missed delivery and the shelves will empty.
  • People purchase enough food for a couple of days. They have little or no staples in store - and probably couldn't cook them if they did.
  • The interlinking of support contracts between communications providers which means that two simultaneous failures could be difficult to manage. For example, Virgin Media has outsourced its voice network management contract to BT - while, I understand, offering BT backup circuits for voice communication.
  • Striving for 'efficiency' often means cutting back to the bone - shown in how stretched the NHS is each winter.
Those who work with complex systems will tell you that real failures usually involve many things going wrong at the same time - hence the "Swiss Cheese" safety model. There is one crucial layer missing in the current security systems - security at home.

Interestingly, there are things that the individual can do to reduce the problem - both for themselves and for their neighbours. The first rule is "do not add to the problem". This means that if there is panic buying at the supermarket, you don't want to be there.

Here are some practical suggestions:
  1. Do not rely on any particular service or supply. Do not get rid of that gas fire, or block up that chimney.
  2. Keep a stock of food that will mean that you won't starve if you can't get to the supermarket for a week. If you don't have a cold water tank, include some cheap bottled water - if you do, keep some empty PET bottles to fill up.
  3. Make sure that you have something to cook on (and fuel for it) - if you go camping, you probably have this already.
  4. Be prepared to check on your neighbours, and help them if the need arises.
If we decided to build a truly resilient society, it would be based on distribution of resources and systems. Homes would be responsible for not only reducing their consumption when there were shortages, but in storage when there were surpluses. This can be applied to food, water or energy. Unfortunately, the government is too focused on the short term to find such sensible solutions attractive.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Our leaders have learnt - nothing?

The public are clearly disgusted at the behaviour of our political leaders and the bankers. So how have they changed?

  • Fred Goodwin has 'handed back' about 1/4 of his pension pot - leaving him with a mere £12M - so he still gets a pension of £342,000 a year, on top of the tax-free £2.8m he took out of the fund in February.
  • Royal Bank of Scotland is planning a pay package worth up to £9.6m for Stephen Hester, its new chief executive.
The Speaker
  • There is, apparently, pressure from the Whips to get Margaret Beckett elected as Speaker. Change? What change.
  • The political class are trumpeting the 'openness' of the secret ballot for a new Speaker, ignoring the fact that this was only introduced to prevent the Whips from being able to monitor how MPs voted.
The Police
  • The police are still getting stressed about people taking photgraphs of their vehicles parked in disabled bays, in spite of the official statements, including the letter I received from Vernon Coaker.
  • More revelations are coming out about police behaviour at Climate Camp last year, including two people being held for 4 days because they demanded to know who the were dealing with.
Quangos and incompetence

It is difficult to know where to start:
  • LSC
  • PFI
Any answers?

Well, the Modern Liberty movement is proposing "Real Change: open politics" - it is worth a read, and may be our best hope.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Secure communication over Twitter and

Proposal - Securing communications through microblogging

It is possible for microbloggers to publish their public keys as a link from their profile. This might be indicated by preceding the URL with a code, such as a double $ dollar sign. Add an agreed symbol, $ for example, at the beginning of the message to indicate that it has been signed by being encrypted with the matching private key.

Similarly, a message encrypted with another's public key could be preceded by $username. A message starting with:

$username $encrypted text

though as will be clear in due course this might not always be desired.

As the message string is short, it should be encrypted directly to as to not lengthen it. As a result, if PGP type encryption were to be used, the message should be treated as the session key, not the body text. Given the sixe of microblogs this should not be onerous.

Message signing

  • creates a micro blogging account
  • publishes a link to her public key in her profile
  • posts a message encrypted with her private key, preceded by the $$ code.
  • anyone can read the message, by using Alice's public key
  • only someone knowing Alice's private key could have sent it
Secure Messaging

Alice and Bob:
  • create a micro blogging account each
  • publish a link to their public key in their profiles

  • posts a message encrypted with her private key, and Bob's public key preceded by the sequence $$bob $$.
  • anyone can see that Alice has sent Bob a message
  • only someone knowing Bob's private key can decode the message
  • only someone knowing Alice's private key could have sent the message
Anonymous Addressing

Alice and Bob:
  • create a micro blogging account each
  • publish a link to their public key in their profiles
  • creates a string encrypted with her private key and precedes it with the sequence $$bob.
  • This concatenated string is then encoded with Bob's public key and posted as a message, preceded by $$$.
  • anyone who uses secure communication with Alice attempts to decode the message using their private key
  • Bob alone will find an encrypted message starting with $$bob, which Bob can then decode
  • no-one can see that Alice has sent Bob a message
  • only someone knowing Bob's private key can know that the message was for him and decode the message
  • only someone knowing Alice's private key could have sent the message