UK.gov: You didn't trust us with your ID, so we gave it to private biz
But the very next day, it gave it away
2012 review Earlier this year your correspondent was standing tantalisingly close to Matt Smith in the ACTUAL TARDIS - long story, not gonna Facebook it, never gonna tweet it. However, many Brits are happy to noisily ricochet chunks of their private lives across any number of websites and systems, in a year in which the British government has pushed for sweeping online surveillance powers.
The end result of our government's desire to catch these flying bits and bytes of our lives could be more internet-bothering laws. Perhaps the defining moment of this year's campaign was Home Secretary Theresa May's resurrection of NuLabour's shelved Interception Modernisation Programme as the not-exactly-catchy-sounding Communications Capabilities Development Programme. In opposition, the Tories had deeply opposed any such grand snooping plans and argued that civil liberties would be eroded by Labour's National ID-obsessed database state.
But now that the Conservative Party is the senior partner in the ruling coalition, the mood has changed: May was accused of pandering to the needs and desires of MI5, while many of her Cabinet colleagues continued to toil away at their own pet projects involving the online world.
May has pushed - at times incoherently - for surveillance of the internet by spooks and police to be massively beefed up in the UK while being careful to insist that no "central database" would be built. Instead, the Home Sec wants to transfer the burden of storing such sensitive data onto ISPs, who under the proposed law would be required to retain subscriber information, usage and traffic data for 12 months.
Indeed, much of this offloading of data-hoarding responsibility to the private sector has been in play for some time now - even as junior coalition partner the Liberal Democrats watched from the sidelines chewing on their lips before occasionally wading in with a suggestion that "we perhaps need to rethink that one".
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg certainly showed his mettle by forcing May to introduce a draft communications data bill so it could be appropriately prodded at by MPs and peers. That climbdown happened and, after many months of trying to untangle the planned legislative overhaul, the Home Affairs Select Committee concluded that the bill - in its current form - was "too sweeping", "misleading" and "suspicious".
In response, Clegg said the Home Sec needed to go back to the drawing board. May kind of agreed, but said she'll be back fighting fit in 2013 ready to wipe the floor with her critics who oppose her beloved web snooping bill that will apparently eradicate terrorism and pedophilia.
Her department, steered on this issue by Director of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism Charles Farr, now has to discuss properly with internet players about the technical aspects and the "fanciful" £1.8bn 10-year cost figures of the bill.
It means that pushing such a law through this Parliament - which ends in 2015 - has hit something of a roadblock. That said, the committee of MPs and peers who examined the proposed law all recognised that legislation is needed as long as it is measured and proportionate.
Charles Farr (centre) made a rare public appearance at a select committee hearing in 2012
Microsoft and Google were among the tech giants quizzed by the panel, which is chaired by Lord Blencathra. Their evidence submitted to the committee underlined the frustration expressed privately to your correspondent about how little the industry was involved in working out how the proposed network-snooping law would work, if at all.
Microsoft's EU policy wonk Stephen Collins said he failed to get many answers out of the Home Office, while Google's UK public policy boss Sarah Hunter said the search giant was unable to even consult with May's department ahead of a closed committee hearing on 6 September.
Collins had told the committee that it appeared that spooks were clueless on the types of data they needed access to. He said:
[F]or me there is a danger that we are trying to address a capability gap when there is a lack of capability of understanding among law enforcement agencies of 21st century technologies and the data sets that are generated and how they can be accessed and used for investigations... I do not know what the solution is to bridge that capability gap, but it is like a sledgehammer to crack a nut to try to introduce primary legislation on the basis of a supposed information gap that really does not exist.
The draft bill called on ISPs to retain communications data by logging every website visit, as well as any access made by its customers to email accounts, Facebook and difficult-to-tap tech such as peer-to-peer communications and Skype. However, Hunter warned the committee of how “complex” and “expensive” the securing of user data on a massive scale would be.
Our company runs search, and in engineering terms it genuinely is rocket science. So the more you protect, the more you require a communication service provider to store, the more you have to be able to search through it. That is very difficult. At Google, we employ, I think, 250 engineers just to protect data overlaps. This is not something that should be taken lightly.
Had May's proposed law passed through the Lords and Commons unchallenged, then one of the biggest areas of concern would have been how access to such data might have been controlled. The UK government has a long and poor record on data protection, which underlines only too well the fallibility of civil servants and police officers who are required to protect and safeguard sensitive information they retain and process. But they don't always manage to, especially when staffing numbers are short and resources are squeezed.
Identify the missing word - win a prize!
While the Home Office has been battling to increase surveillance of the internet in Blighty to apparently fall in line with the likes of China, Iran and Kazakhstan, all of whom collect data on a national scale through Deep Packet Inspection probes, other parts of Whitehall have been meddling with the internet in entirely different ways.
This year the Cabinet Office killed off Directgov and replaced it with GOV.UK - a single domain website intended to make public services more accessible online. So far that project has - in design terms - moved from a 1970s bedsit in Crawley to a 2000s minimalist warehouse apartment in Shoreditch. And no, that's not a compliment.
About 8 million Brits remain largely oblivious to the online world. Many of those citizens come from poor backgrounds, are elderly or disabled. The government claims to be addressing what it has defined as a "digital divide" by effectively trying to force everyone online. The monthly broadband costs and the spare cash needed to buy a computer dropped off the agenda.
Instead, Cabinet Minister Francis Maude wants the government to make its public services "digital by default". This also, chillingly, means shifting many more government transactions completely into cloud computing systems.
Men in hard hats on the now-dead Directgov website
Right now a Whitehall-backed identity-handling services market is being created for the private sector that will be tasked with processing the IDs of millions of taxpayers in Blighty. Maude sees it as a lucrative way to do business and the Department for Work and Pensions' Universal Credit scheme is the first to "benefit" from the programme. The Post Office and credit-check outfit Experian are among the providers who will build an ID registration system for the DWP.
Down the line, British citizens could access government services online by logging in via Facebook, for example. We exclusively reported this fact in the summer of 2011; the national press only recently cottoned on to these plans. What many failed to report, however, was that primary legislation - new laws - will almost certainly be required before the UK's ID market can fully blossom. In the meantime, ministers will continue to flirt with Silicon Valley types. For evidence one need only look east to a roundabout of startups in east London.
But think of the children, minister!
Monetising public data about the nation is a huge policy in Whitehall that could soon turn into a nightmarish bedtime story for Britain's kids.
Education Secretary Michael Gove did the seemingly impossible recently by opening up a public consultation on plans, in his words, "to share extracts of data held in the National Pupil Database (NPD) for a wider range of purposes than currently possible in order to maximise the value of this rich dataset".
One such usage cited would involve creating a private-sector market that would be able to offer "innovative tools and services which present anonymised versions of the data".
What this means in practice is that sensitive information held about children across Blighty could soon be in the hands of marketeers who want to extend their data-scraping exercises beyond the likes of Facebook, Google and other well-known free-content ad networks. It would now seem that even a child's school life including exam results, attendance, teacher assessments and even characteristics could soon be scrutinised in the same way.
The only trouble is hardly anyone has actually heard about it, and privacy campaigners had very little time to battle the proposals. The consultation has been and gone, very few questions were raised in Parliament about it, and a revision to the current regulation guarding the NPD could come as early as spring next year.
Meanwhile, the government has claimed that it had been in talks with the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) over the course of 2012 regarding its proposed opening up of the school database to allow private companies to develop apps that would exploit the datasets.
Here's what Tory MP Edward Timpson told the House late last month:
Officials have discussed proposals to widen access to extracts of data from the national pupil database under strict terms and conditions with representatives from the Information Commissioner's Office on a number of occasions over the last year. Information Commissioner Office representatives have said that they would support in principle the release of data under controlled access, as long as a proper system of governance is in place.
It's a statement that drastically differs from the one your correspondent got from the ICO about Gove's proposals, however. I was told by a spokesman at the watchdog immediately after the plans were mentioned in Parliament in the autumn that the ICO had not been provided with information about the proposals before the announcement.
While the government is not legally required to speak to the commission about plans regarding the handling of data, the ICO spokesman noted at the time that as "the regulator of the legislation at play, it is in their interests for them to do so".
Do the hokey cokey and then turn around
Besides from the Queen's Jubilee and the London Olympics, 2012 will probably be remembered by many as the year when internet trolling went mainstream with idiots making "grossly offensive" comments online and wasting precious police time.
It will also be defined by the Leveson inquiry drama played out often by Hugh Grant, who was last seen ashen-faced in an Eastenders-style black taxi exit after Lord Leveson delivered his report on press ethics. The rather expensive inquiry concluded with the judge calling for independent regulation of British newspapers underpinned by legislation, only for Prime Minister David Cameron to pooh-pooh the idea and then get on with his day.
Meanwhile, as Jimmy Savile's name was shortened simply to 'im vile, the debate about child safety online reached its height by the end of the year with Cameron backing away from any plan to force telcos to introduce network-level filtering to block websites deemed to be inappropriate for the prying eyes of youngsters. Public consultation had shown there wasn't an "appetite" for such a plan. Finally, some common sense appeared to come out of Downing Street, with the PM recognising that the best people to counsel children about sex, monsters, and, well, sex monsters was probably their parents. ®