Massive anti-terror database contemplated in the UK

British Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon has been saying some worrisome things about terrorism, security, and civil liberties. He is backing a plan to create a massive database of mobile and internet communications, for purposes of fighting terrorism. One worrisome aspect is the suggestion that it would be used to deal with “terrorists or criminals.” Technologies initially justified as an extreme measure necessary to fight terrorism will always spread to more banal uses, with a greater scope for abuses.

Indeed, that is the biggest issue that needs to be weighed against the possible terror-fighting capacity of such databases. They will inevitably be abused. Furthermore, governments are far more dangerous than terrorists, both when they are acting in malicious ways and when they are trying to be benign. Modern history certainly demonstrates that, while the power of terrorists to inflict harm is considerable, the ability of states to do so is extreme.


Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

28 thoughts on “Massive anti-terror database contemplated in the UK”

  1. What possible abuses of this system would be as bad as a terrorist attack?

  2. A police state is more inhuman and dangerous than a free state with some terrorism (dealt with in the manner of other crimes).

    Monitoring the communications of everyone seems like a significant step towards such a state.

  3. The database will only contain records of who contacts who – not the contents of the messages.

  4. True, but I think that is probably because doing the latter is technologically infeasible right now. It would be a logical future extension to store all or some of the messages themselves.

  5. Anti-Terror Law Mission Creep in the U.K.
    By Bruce Schneier

    More than half of town halls admit using anti-terror laws to spy on families suspected of putting their rubbish out on the wrong day.

    Their tactics include putting secret cameras in tin cans, on lamp posts and even in the homes of ‘friendly’ residents.

    The local authorities admitted that one of their main aims was to catch householders who put their bins out early.

  6. With 5.3m profiles, representing 9% of the population, Britain’s DNA database is believed to be the biggest in the world; few other countries hold profiles of more than 2% of their citizens. In England and Wales (not Scotland) the police take DNA samples from anyone who is arrested for a “recordable” offence—usually one carrying a custodial sentence, but including peccadillos such as begging or being drunk and disorderly. (This happened to Damian Green, the Tory immigration spokesman, when he was arrested on November 27th in connection with Home Office leaks.) The data is then stored for the rest of the suspect’s life, even if he is acquitted or never charged. No other democracy does this.

  7. UK Police To Step Up Hacking of Home PCs

    “The Times of London reports that the United Kingdom’s Home office has quietly adopted a new plan to allow police across Britain routinely to hack into people’s personal computers without a warrant. The move, which follows a decision by the European Union’s council of ministers in Brussels, has angered civil liberties groups and opposition MPs. They described it as a sinister extension of the surveillance state that drives ‘a coach and horses’ through privacy laws.”

  8. Malevolent voices that despise our freedoms
    To mark the Convention on Modern Liberty, the children’s author has written this article

    Philip Pullman
    February 27, 2009
    From The Times

    The nation dreams it is a democratic state where the laws were made by freely elected representatives who were answerable to the people. It used to be such a nation once, it dreams, so it must be that nation still. It is a sweet dream.

  9. And the new laws whisper:

    We do not want to hear you talking about truth

    Truth is a friend of yours, not a friend of ours

    We have a better friend called hearsay, who is a witness we can always rely on

    We do not want to hear you talking about innocence

    Innocent means guilty of things not yet done

    We do not want to hear you talking about the right to silence

    You need to be told what silence means: it means guilt

    We do not want to hear you talking about justice

    Justice is whatever we want to do to you

    And nothing else

  10. UK Gov’t May Track All Facebook Traffic

    “The UK government, which is becoming increasingly Orwellian, has said that it is considering snooping on all social networking traffic including Facebook, MySpace, and bebo. This supposedly anti-terrorist measure may be proposed as part of the Intercept Modernisation Programme according to minister Vernon Coaker, and is exactly the sort of deep packet inspection web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee warned about last week. The measure would get around the inconvenience for the government of not being able to snoop on all UK web traffic.”

  11. London imposes de-facto 9PM curfew on under-16s

    By Cory Doctorow on Kids

    London cops have been given the power to “disperse” anyone under 16, gathered in groups of two or more, from almost all of central London, after 9PM. The police don’t have to see the kids doing anything wrong, they only have to believe “the presence or behaviour of a group of two or more persons in any public place in the relevant locality has resulted, or is likely to result, in any members of the public being intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed.”

  12. Call to scrap ‘illegal databases’

    A quarter of all government databases are illegal and should be scrapped or redesigned, according to a report.

    The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust says storing information leads to vulnerable people, such as young black men, single parents and children, being victimised.

    It says the UK’s “database state” wastes billions from the public purse and often breaches human rights laws.

    But the government says the report contains “no substantive evidence” on which to base its conclusions.

  13. London cops reach new heights of anti-terror poster stupidity
    By Cory Doctorow on Civlib

    The British authorities are bent on driving fear into the hearts of Britons: fear of terrorists, immigrants, pedophiles, children, knives… And once people are afraid enough, they’ll write government a blank check to expand its authority without sense or limit.

    What an embarrassment from the country whose level-headed response to the Blitz was “Keep Calm and Carry On” — how has that sensible motto been replaced with “When in trouble or in doubt/Run in circles scream and shout”?

  14. How British cops are criminalising peaceful protest

    Last week Lib Dem MP David Howarth held a meeting in Westminster to present a highly disturbing and potentially explosive report on the way police in the UK are criminalising legitimate protest. The report, produced by the Climate Camp’s legal support team and entitled Policing of the Kingsnorth Climate Camp: Preventing Disorder or Preventing Protest?, documents a concerted campaign by police to deter, smear, intimidate, harass, and criminalise UK citizens who did nothing more than attempt to exercise their right to peaceful protest.

    As well as documenting the alarming police tactics at Kingsnorth, the report also highlights a deliberate attempt to deflect criticism through misinformation. Government justified the heavy-handed approach by revealing that 70 police officers had been injured policing the protest; but a freedom of information request revealed that these ‘injuries to police’ included such things as heatstroke, toothache and insect bites. Vernon Coaker, the Home Office minister who had made the claim about police injuries, was later forced to apolgise to the House and admit that “there were no recorded injuries to police officers sustained as a result of direct contact with the protestors

  15. Police Powers and the UK Government in the 1980s
    By Bruce Schneier

    One of the few home secretaries who dominated his department rather than be cowed by it was Lord Whitelaw in the 1980s. He boasted how after any security lapse, the police would come to beg for new and draconian powers. He laughed and sent them packing, saying only a bunch of softies would erode British liberty to give themselves an easier job. He said they laughed in return and remarked that “it was worth a try”.

  16. Agency denies internet spy plans

    The UK’s electronic intelligence agency has taken the unusual step of issuing a statement to deny it will track all UK internet and online phone use.

    Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) said it was developing tracking technology but “only acts when it is necessary” and “does not spy at will”.

    The denial follows the home secretary scrapping plans for a single government database for all communications.

    Jacqui Smith said instead firms should record all people’s internet contacts.

  17. Yet, though the people of this country remain as mild and as peaceful as they have ever been, our MPs have introduced a wider range of repressive measures than at any time since the Second World War. A long list of laws – the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act, Terrorism Act 2000, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the 2005 Serious Crime and Police Act and many others – treat peaceful protesters as if they are stalkers, vandals, thugs and terrorists. Thousands of harmless, public-spirited people now possess criminal records. This legislation has been enforced by policing which becomes more aggressive and intrusive by the month. The police attacks on the G20 protests (which are about to be challenged by a judicial review launched by Climate Camp) are just the latest expression of this rising state violence. Why is it happening?

    Before I try to answer this, let me give you an idea of just how weird policing in Britain has become. A few weeks ago, like everyone in mid-Wales, I received a local policing summary from the Dyfed-Powys force. It contained a section headed Terrorism and Domestic Extremism. “Work undertaken is not solely focussed on the threat from international terrorists. Attention has also been paid to the potential threat that domestic extremists and campaigners can pose.” I lodged a freedom of information request to try to discover what this meant. What threat do campaigners pose?

    I’ve just been told by the police that they don’t intend to reply within the statutory period, or to tell me when they will. I’ll complain of course, and (in 2019 or so) I’ll let you know the result. But Paul Mobbs of the Free Range Network has found what appears to be an explanation. Under the heading “Protect[ing] the country from both terrorism and domestic extremism”, the Dyfed-Powys Police website repeats the line about domestic extremists and campaigners. “In this context, the Force was praised for its management management of the slaughter of what was felt to be a sacred animal from the Skanda Vale religious community in Carmarthenshire”. You might remember it: this Hindu community tried to prevent Shambo the bull from being culled by the government after he tested positive for TB. His defenders sought a judicial review and launched a petition. When that failed, they sang and prayed. That’s all.

  18. Who’s watching you? (2)

    By Mike Rudin (BBC News)

    When I started with Richard Bilton on our new BBC Two series about surveillance (see previous post), I knew the often-quoted statistic that the UK has 4.2 million CCTV cameras (actually, this is a very rough guesstimate made in 2002), and I knew that we have one of the largest DNA databases in the world.

    What I didn’t know was how

    A surprising number of CCTV cameras are now provided online, openly and publicly. For the first time, we’ve started to put all those cameras on a clickable map of the UK. We want to build the map to show just how much is already available. So, if you spot a CCTV camera that has a public feed, please go to and add it to the map.

  19. Britain’s secret spy-on-every-call-and-email plan already well underway

    By Cory Doctorow on politics

    Glyn sez, “The UK government has already spent several hundreds million pounds installing a secret mass internet surveillance system at the same time as the home secretary has been telling the public they would not do it and instead would consult on internet monitoring. The program is called ‘Mastering the Internet’ MTI the kind of name you would expect and an evil genus to come up with. MTI is a major part of the government’s Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP). Lockheed Martin has already be awarded contracts worth £200 million and Detica has also won a contract while GCHQ has been allocated a budget of £1 billion over three years. So it is well past the planning stage. The Regulation of interception powers act allows for the inclusion of such interception ‘black boxes’ – but the order has to be laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House. If this has not happened – and it hasn’t – then any ISP installing a ‘black box’ will be acting illegally.”

  20. Britain will subject everyone who works with kids to multiple, repeated police-checks

    By Cory Doctorow on Kids

    Britain’s pedophile-phobia has reached new heights of insanity — now everyone who comes into contact with a child at school has to have a police background check and get certified as genuine non-pedophiles. But not just once — over and over again; a different certificate for teaching karate, escorting field trips, or giving a presentation on careers day. Because, you know, you might not be a karate-teaching pedo, but you might be a field-trip pedo. Everyone’s included from Members of Parliament to authors giving a reading. Charlie Stross has some good commentary on the potential dangers all this background checking creates:

    As you can imagine, the authors are upset. As Philip Pullman puts it, “It seems to be fuelled by the same combination of prurience, sexual fear and cold political calculation,” the author of the bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy said today. “When you go into a school as an author or an illustrator you talk to a class at a time or else to the whole school. How on earth — how on earth — how in the world is anybody going to rape or assault a child in those circumstances? It’s preposterous…”

    Even the simplest of databases have been found to contain error rates of 10%. (The HMRC database in this study contains merely first, second and surname, title, sex, data of birth, address and National Insurance number — nevertheless 10% of the records contain errors.) Other agencies are even more prone to mistakes. For example: my wife recently discovered that our GP’s medical records showed her as having been born outside the UK rather than in an NHS hospital in Manchester. We don’t know why that error’s in the system, and we’ve got the birth certificate and witnesses to prove that it is an error, but imagine the fun that might ensue if the control freaks in Whitehall decided to enforce record sharing between the NHS and the Immigration Agency …! (Hopefully they’re not that stupid, but who can tell?)

  21. Scientists Decry “Horrifying” UK Border Test Plan

    cremeglace writes “Scientists are dismayed and outraged at a new project by the UK border agency to test DNA, hair, and nails to determine the nationality of asylum seekers and help decide if they can enter the UK. ‘Horrifying,’ ‘naive,’ and ‘flawed’ are among the words geneticists and isotope specialists have used to describe the ‘Human Provenance pilot project.’ The methods being used to determine ancestry include fingerprinting of mitochondrial DNA and isotope analysis of hair and nails. ScienceInsider blog notes that it is ‘not clear who is conducting the DNA and isotope analyses for the Border Agency,’ and that the agency has not ‘cited any scientific papers that validate its DNA and isotope methods.’ There is also a followup post with more information on the tests that are being used, and some reactions from experts in genetic forensic analysis. This story was first reported in The Observer on Sunday.”

  22. “Wasting no time, the agency has launched a building boom, doubling the size of its headquarters, expanding its listening posts, and constructing enormous data factories. One clue to the possible purpose of the highly secret megacenters comes from the agency’s British partner, Government Communications Headquarters. Last year, the British government proposed the creation of an enormous government-run central database to store details on every phone call, e-mail, and Internet search made in the United Kingdom. Click a “send” key or push an “answer” button and the details of the communication end up, perhaps forever, in the government’s data warehouse to be scrutinized and analyzed.

    But when the plans were released by the UK government, there was an immediate outcry from both the press and the public, leading to the scrapping of the “big brother database,” as it was called. In its place, however, the government came up with a new plan. Instead of one vast, centralized database, the telecom companies and Internet service providers would be required to maintain records of all details about people’s phone, e-mail, and Web-browsing habits for a year and to permit the government access to them when asked. That has led again to public anger and to a protest by the London Internet Exchange, which represents more than 330 telecommunications firms. “We view…the volume of data the government now proposes [we] should collect and retain will be unprecedented, as is the overall level of intrusion into the privacy of citizenry,” the group said in August.”

  23. Wednesday, June 13, 2007
    CSE Commissioner’s annual report

    The CSE Commissioner’s latest annual report was tabled in the House of Commons on June 12th. The report was the first by new commissioner Charles Gonthier, who took over from Antonio Lamer last year, and it makes for very interesting reading.

    Call records and similar information would be just the sort of raw data needed for network-analysis data mining, which CSE has shown considerable interest in recently. NSA has reportedly collected massive amounts of such information related to U.S. communications (one aspect of the warrantless wiretapping scandal down south), so CSE interest in something similar is not entirely implausible.

    There were lots of other interesting comments in Adams’s testimony. But that’s a matter for future posts.

  24. The above suggests that Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) may have been considering establishing a database similar to the UK version discussed above, back in 2007.

  25. Data mining for national security
    Some links to information on CSE and data mining (previously blogged about here and here):

    The Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems (MITACS) project, a network of academia, industry and the public sector, including CSE, that was created to “harness the power of the mathematical sciences to address the inherent complexity of modern industrial and societal problems for the benefit of all Canadians”. Projects include Semi-Supervised Learning in Large Graphs:

    As part of ongoing collaborations with the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), we are applying unsupervised and semi-supervised learning methods to understand transactions on large dynamic networks, such as telephone and email networks. When viewed as a graph, the nodes correspond to individuals that send or receive messages, and edges correspond to the messages themselves. The graphs we address can be observed in real-time, include from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of nodes, and feature thousands to millions of transactions. There are two goals associated with this project: firstly, there is the semi-supervised learning task, and rare-target problem, in which we wish to identify certain types of nodes; secondly, there is the unsupervised learning task of detecting anomalous messages. For reasons of efficiency, we have restricted our attention to meta-data of message transactions, such as the time, sender, and recipient, and ignored the contents of messages themselves. In collaboration with CSE, we are studying the problem of counter-terrorism, a semi-supervised problem in which some terrorists in a large network are labeled, but most are not…. Another common feature of counter-terrorism problems is the fact that large volumes of data are often “streamed” through various collection sites, in order to provide maximal information in a timely fashion. A consequence of efficient collection of transactions on very large graphs is that the data itself can only be stored for a short time. This leads to a nonstandard learning problem, since most learning algorithms assume that the full dataset can be accessed for training purposes. Working in conjunction with CSE, we will devise on-line learning algorithms that scale efficiently with increasing volume, and need only use each example once.

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