Our web history reveals what we think and do. Shouldn’t that remain private?

By Paul Bernal, University of East Anglia

An overlooked aspect of the draft Investigatory Powers Bill is the significance of demanding that service providers store 12 months’ internet connection records. A record of every website visited and internet service connected to, the government presents this as the online equivalent of an itemised phone bill. But this is a false analogy: internet connection records carry far more detail than a phone book, and the government’s move to claim them represents an unprecedented intrusion into our lives.

Supporters of the bill suggest that this data provides a way of checking that someone accessed Facebook at a particular time, just as phone records can reveal that a user called a particular number at a certain time. But while this is true, it misunderstands the role the internet has in our lives, and consequently underplays how much it can reveal.

The phone is a communications tool, but we have complex online lives and use the internet for many things other than “communication”. We do almost everything online: we bank online, we shop, find relationships, listen to music, watch television and films, plan our holidays, read about and indulge our interests.

Access to the websites we visit, for an entire year, is not at all comparable to having an itemised telephone bill. It’s more equivalent to tailing someone as they visit the shops, the pub, the cinema, listen to the radio, go to the park and on holiday, read books and magazines and newspapers, and much more.

It’s not just the data that’s revealing, it’s the sort of direct, logical inferences that can be made given a web browsing history. For example, from the fact that someone visits sites connected with a particular religion, one can infer that they follow that religion. If they visit sites regarding a particular health condition, it’s possible to infer that they may suffer from that condition, or are worried about their health.

[Read more…]


Sharm el-Sheikh flight from UK dodged missile last August

The Guardian reports: A plane carrying British holidaymakers to Sharm el-Sheikh came within 300 metres (1,000ft) of a missile as it neared the Egyptian airport in August, the government has confirmed.

A Thomson Airways flight from London Stansted to the Red Sea resort, carrying 189 passengers, took evasive action after the missile was spotted in its trajectory by the pilot. The crew of flight TOM 476 landed the plane safely and passengers were not advised of the incident, which occurred on 23 August.

The incident is not thought to be directly linked to Britain’s decision to curtail flights to Sharm el-Sheikh in the wake of the crash of the Russian Metrojet airliner, killing 224 people, last Saturday. However, it will underline fears that regional instability could threaten flights, as more countries joined Britain in restricting air travel and imposing tougher security measures. [Continue reading…]


UAE threatened UK: Crack down on Muslim Brotherhood or lose arms deals

The Guardian reports: The United Arab Emirates threatened to block billion-pound arms deals with the UK, stop inward investment and cut intelligence cooperation if David Cameron did not act against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Guardian has learned.

Internal UAE government documents seen by the Guardian show that the crown prince of Abu Dhabi was briefed to complain to the prime minister about the Muslim Brotherhood in June 2012, when one of its leading members, Mohamed Morsi, became Egyptian president.

In the briefing notes it was suggested that the crown prince demand Cameron rein in BBC coverage.

In return, Cameron was to be offered lucrative arms and oil deals for British business which would have generated billions of pounds for the jet divisions of BAE Systems and allowed BP to bid to drill for hydrocarbons in the Gulf.

A second set of papers from 2014 reveal that the UK’s ambassador to the UAE was warned by Khaldoon al-Mubarak – best known in Britain as chairman of Manchester City football club but also the right-hand man of the crown prince – that the UAE was still unhappy and that a “red flag” had been raised about the British government’s indifference to the Brotherhood’s operation.

The warning delivered to Dominic Jermey said the trust between the two nations “has been challenged due to the UK position towards the Muslim Brotherhood” because “our ally is not seeing it as we do: an existential threat not just to the UAE but to the region”. [Continue reading…]


British government’s new plans for mass surveillance welcomed by opposition

The Guardian reports: New surveillance powers will be given to the police and security services, allowing them to access records tracking every UK citizen’s use of the internet without any judicial check, under the provisions of the draft investigatory powers bill unveiled by Theresa May.

It includes new powers requiring internet and phone companies to keep “internet connection records” – tracking every website visited but not every page – for a maximum of 12 months but will not require a warrant for the police, security services or other bodies to access the data. Local authorities will be banned from accessing internet records.

The proposed legislation will also introduce a “double-lock” on the ministerial approval of interception warrants with a new panel of seven judicial commissioners – probably retired judges – given a veto before they can come into force.

But the details of the bill make clear that this new safeguard for the most intrusive powers to spy on the content of people’s conversations and messages will not apply in “urgent cases” – defined as up to five days – where judicial approval is not possible.

The draft investigatory powers bill published on Wednesday by the home secretary aims to provide a “comprehensive and comprehensible” overhaul of Britain’s fragmented surveillance laws. It comes two-and-a-half years after the disclosures by the whistleblower Edward Snowden of the scale of secret mass surveillance of the global traffic in confidential personal data carried out by Britain’s GCHQ and the US’s National Security Agency (NSA).

It will replace the current system of three separate commissioners with a senior judge as a single investigatory powers commissioner.

May told MPs that the introduction of the most controversial power – the storage of everyone’s internet connection records tracking the websites they have visited, which is banned as too intrusive in the US and every European country including Britain – was “simply the modern equivalent of an itemised phone bill”.

Her recommendations were broadly welcomed by the shadow home secretary, Andy Burnham, but received a more cautious welcome from the former Conservative shadow home secretary David Davis, the former shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister. [Continue reading…]


After hailing democracy in Tahrir Square in 2011, Cameron now welcomes the man who killed Egypt’s revolution

Jack Shenker writes: In footage recorded by news cameras, you can see David Cameron – flanked by a large security team – threading his way through the flag sellers and nut vendors and the amiable mayhem of Tahrir Square. It is February 2011, ten days after the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Locals drift over to see what the fuss is about, and many call out to welcome the British prime minister. At one point a boy, his face painted in revolutionary style with the colours of the Egyptian flag, runs up to Cameron and smiles. “Are you happy now?” Cameron asks, in English. The child looks blank. Cameron nods with satisfaction and holds out his hand. “Put it there,” he grins.

The imagery of Cameron traipsing around an urban landscape that still bore the scars of revolutionary struggle was designed to convey a particular message: after decades of providing steadfast support to one of the Middle East’s most entrenched autocrats, Britain was supposedly ready to embrace a new type of politics. “I’ve just been meeting with leaders of the democracy movement, really brave people who did extraordinary things in Tahrir Square,” Cameron told the BBC. “We want Egypt to have a strong and successful future, we want the aspirations of the Egyptian people – for democracy, for freedom, for openness, the things we take for granted – we want them to have those things.”

Almost half a decade later, Cameron is finally about to return Egypt’s hospitality, and once again news cameras will be on hand to capture the moment. This time round, though, the images will be very different.

Next week Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is scheduled to accept an invitation to Downing Street: red carpets will be unfurled, gifts exchanged and powerful hands shaken. His photoshoot with Cameron will be a celebration not of new politics, but of more conventional forms of power – the kinds that remain safely locked up inside the executive, the army and institutional elites. The buzzwords at the official banquet will be “stability” and “security”. Of freedom, or openness, or the Egyptian streets that Cameron was so keen to walk down – the streets in which power, not so long ago, came to reside – little mention will be made. [Continue reading…]


UK counter-terrorism measures threaten press freedom

Committee to Protect Journalists reports: For journalists investigating jihadist networks, the UK is proving to be no safe haven. British police used special powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 in August to seize the laptop of Secunder Kermani, a reporter for BBC Two’s flagship news show “Newsnight,” according to reports. “They required the BBC to hand over communication between the BBC journalist and a man in Syria who publicly identified himself as an [Islamic State] member,” BBC spokeswoman said today.

Kermani is known in the UK for his coverage of militant groups and, as British daily The Independent noted, “He has built a reputation for making contact with Western-born [Islamic State] fighters and interviewing them online about their motivations.” The reporter has received some criticism for his coverage however, including by the UK’s former security minister Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, who said last year that publicity gives terrorists “a status and importance they should not be accorded.”

The move by police has sent a chill through the British media. Ian Katz, editor of “Newsnight,” told news outlets, “We are concerned that the use of the Terrorism Act to obtain communication between journalists and sources will make it very difficult for reporters to cover this issue of critical public interest.” [Continue reading…]


‘No one puts children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.’

The Guardian reports: The actor Benedict Cumberbatch has shown his growing frustration over the migration crisis during a speech after his Hamlet performance – reportedly saying “fuck the politicians”.

The Sherlock star has been giving nightly speeches after his curtain call at the Barbican in London and asking for donations to help Syrian refugees. So far, audience contributions have raised more than £150,000 for Save the Children.

Cumberbatch has been particularly critical of the British government’s decision to accept only 20,000 refugees over five years.

During the speeches, Cumberbatch has been reading a poem called Home by Somali poet Warsan Shire, the same one he read in the introduction to Help is Coming, Save the Children’s charity single, released in the summer. It includes the line: “No one puts children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” [Continue reading…]


Spinning against imperialism: Jeremy Corbyn, Seumas Milne and the Middle East

By Brian Whitaker, al-bab, October 27, 2015

When Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the opposition Labour party in Britain last month I wrote a blog post looking at his public statements on international affairs and trying to draw some conclusions about how British policy in the Middle East might change under a Corbyn-led government.

While some of Corbyn’s ideas struck me as naive there were others that looked more promising. Along with his unwillingness to be drawn into military adventures his declared intention to place human rights “in the centre” of foreign policy seemed like a positive development.

Corbyn has since had some success in that area, embarrassing the government over its cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The government has been struggling to justify its eagerness to do business with the Saudis in the face of their egregious human rights abuses and on this issue the British public, together with large sections of the media, appear to be on Corbyn’s side. This is clearly one of the government’s weak spots, ripe for Labour to exploit.

Last week brought a distraction from the business of opposing the government, however, with the appointment of Guardian columnist Seumas Milne as Executive Director of Strategy and Communications – in effect, as Corbyn’s chief spin doctor. It’s the post formerly held by Alastair Campbell in Tony Blair’s government, and it gives the holder a lot of influence if not actual power. At the very least we can expect Milne to be in daily contact with Corbyn, discussing how to present Labour’s policies and respond to events. [Read more…]


Young asylum seekers’ mental health hinges on where they are homed

By Mike Wells, Cardiff Metropolitan University

For young asylum seekers who are separated from their families, the first few months after arriving in the UK are crucial to their mental health. Many will have gone through traumatic experiences before arriving in Britain.

From our ongoing research interviewing young asylum seekers living in independent accommodation in the UK, we’ve found that if children and young people are placed in a safe and supportive environment when they arrive, it can act as a buffer against the challenges of resettling in a new community. If they are placed in unsuitable accommodation and left to fend for themselves, however, they are at greater risk of developing mental health issues.

In the UK, the placement of unaccompanied minors or separated children and young people is the responsibility of the social services department of the local authority in which they are seeking assistance. The number of these children and young people is increasing, according to recent immigration data from the Home Office. It was reported that 1,986 asylum applications were made by unaccompanied minors or separated children in the year ending March 2015. With the continuing refugee crisis in Europe, this number now is expected to rise.

[Read more…]


Blair offers hollow apology for war in Iraq

The Guardian reports: Tony Blair has moved to prepare the ground for the publication of the Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war by offering a qualified apology for the use of misleading intelligence and the failure to prepare for the aftermath of the invasion.

In an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, the former British prime minister declined to apologise for the war itself and defended armed intervention in 2003, pointing to the current civil war in Syria to highlight the dangers of inaction.

Blair, who will be aware of what Chilcot is planning to say about him in the long-awaited report into the Iraq war, moved to pre-empt its criticisms in an interview with CNN. He told Zakaria: “I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong.

“I also apologise for some of the mistakes in planning and, certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime.” [Continue reading…]


Inside Britain’s secretive Bullingdon Club

Der Spiegel reports: The Bullingdon and other dinner clubs are seeds of power in the United Kingdom, and not just because membership provides influence. Members also gain access to a group of like-minded individuals who will later assume leading roles — allies for life, just as it has always been.

If there is a stable core of British society that has remained unchanged for centuries, it is the upper class. Unlike the elites on the European continent, the leadership clique in Britain was largely spared from revolutions and uprisings. For generations, the children of the country’s powerful families have attended boarding schools like Eton, Winchester and Harrow, followed by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. It is a form of patronage that Britons simply refer to as tradition.

Not everyone has fond memories of those colorful student days. David Cameron was not only a member of the Bullingdon Club, but also of the Piers Gaveston Society, a club for younger students well known for its excesses. If a new biography about the premier is to be believed, Cameron, during one Gaveston party, placed his private parts into the mouth of a dead pig as part of an initiation ritual. The affair was lampooned in the press as “Pig-gate,” and had the entire country laughing at the prime minister. Cameron initially kept mum about the incident before explicitly denying it and his spokeswoman refuses to dignify the book with an official statement.

The most amazing part of the story isn’t the story as such, but the fact that most in Britain think it could be true. Few in the UK are surprised anymore by the excesses and affairs of the powerful at Westminster, a place that has long been viewed as sleazy and tainted. In the summer, to name just one recent example, the Sun published photos of Baron Sewel, a member of the House of Lords, who was photographed, half-naked, snorting cocaine with prostitutes.

There is a direct relationship between the excesses of these men and their lives as university students. One of the traditions at the Bullingdon Club was to invite prostitutes to a group breakfast. Excesses are part of the careers of these men rather than exceptions; they are part of the British elite’s DNA. [Continue reading…]


Britain struggles with its portrayal of Muslim citizens

H A Hellyer writes: This week at the conference of Britain’s ruling party, the Conservatives, prime minister David Cameron raised the issues of extremism and integration in Muslim British communities. Last week, the “Britishness” of one of the Muslim contestants in The Great British Bake Off, a television cooking show, was queried, and a Muslim woman who models for H&M found herself at the centre of a similar experience. The Muslim cook in a headscarf, Nadiya Hussain, won the contest to wide acclaim. But in 2015, the issue of “Muslims and Britain” still does not seem to have been resolved, even though it has been discussed for quite some time.

When Mariah Idrissi accepted an offer to model for fashion retailer H&M while wearing her headscarf, she probably expected some opposition from mainstream society. Yet, few could have quite predicted the barrage that came from some quarters. An otherwise reasonable conservative English commentator, Peter Hitchens, took the opportunity to raise the alarm. He suggested that it wouldn’t be long before Britain had “veiled Muslim Cabinet ministers, TV newsreaders and judges” and that this was “all part of a slow but unstoppable adaptation of this country to Islam”. As a result, non-Muslim women would eventually be pressured to “conform” by disappearing “beneath scarves and shrouds”.

It was a rather peculiar claim. Britain is a tolerant democracy, with a special role for the Anglican Church. All of that ensures that faith is generally respected within the confines of the rule of law. Already, there are Muslim women with headscarves who serve the United Kingdom as civil servants and lawyers – why would Cabinet ministers or judges prove to be some kind of dreaded milestone? The excellent journalist Fatima Manji is already a popular face on TV screens via her work on Channel 4. Has that, somehow, led to undue pressure on even her colleagues to wear headscarves, let alone the rest of the British population? Obviously not.

But Hitchens is hitting at a particular issue, as is Mr Cameron, and others, albeit from a variety of angles. The issue remains: is it possible for Muslims to be discussed in public discourse simply as British citizens, rather than problematic in some way? [Continue reading…]


How GCHQ tracks web users’ online identities

The Intercept reports: There was a simple aim at the heart of the top-secret program: Record the website browsing habits of “every visible user on the Internet.”

Before long, billions of digital records about ordinary people’s online activities were being stored every day. Among them were details cataloging visits to porn, social media and news websites, search engines, chat forums, and blogs.

The mass surveillance operation — code-named KARMA POLICE — was launched by British spies about seven years ago without any public debate or scrutiny. It was just one part of a giant global Internet spying apparatus built by the United Kingdom’s electronic eavesdropping agency, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.

The revelations about the scope of the British agency’s surveillance are contained in documents obtained by The Intercept from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Previous reports based on the leaked files have exposed how GCHQ taps into Internet cables to monitor communications on a vast scale, but many details about what happens to the data after it has been vacuumed up have remained unclear.[Continue reading…]


Student accused of being a terrorist for reading book on terrorism

The Guardian reports: A postgraduate student of counter-terrorism was falsely accused of being a terrorist after an official at Staffordshire University had spotted him reading a textbook entitled Terrorism Studies in the college library.

Mohammed Umar Farooq, who was enrolled in the terrorism, crime and global security master’s programme, told the Guardian that he was questioned about attitudes to homosexuality, Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaida.

His replies, Farooq said, were largely academic but he stressed his personal opposition to extremist views. However, the conversation in the library was reported by the official to security guards, because it had raised “too many red flags” .

“I could not believe it. I was reading an academic textbook and minding my own business. At first I thought I’d just laugh it off as a joke,” said Farooq, who then instructed a lawyer to help him challenge and rebut the claims. [Continue reading…]


Britain’s thought police

Catherine Bennett writes: From Monday, universities must comply, if necessary subject to a court order, with “Prevent duty guidance” on monitoring extremism. The latter being defined, for anyone unclear on what they should be either exposing, or pre-emptively eradicating, as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

One example of extremism, vocalised before he became shadow chancellor, might be John McDonnell’s comment on Margaret Thatcher; that he wished he could go back and kill her. Another might be this, vocalised by a former member of the pan-Islamic Hizb-ut-Tahrir: “We as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech.”

For “it is not about oppressing free speech or stifling academic freedom”, Mr Cameron promises of his new regulations. “It is about making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish.” Stifle, verb: “to kill by depriving of oxygen”.

The justification for this exercise turns out, on his part, to be about producing a list of troublemakers and institutions and hoping nobody spots a distinct lack of rigour in asserting a causal connection between attending a UK university and going on to threaten, or take lives. Eight named terrorist offenders, we learn, had been to UK universities.

Not a huge body of evidence, you might think, recalling Britain’s estimated 700 jihadist volunteers. [Continue reading…]


This is how easy it is to be suspected of being a radical if you’re Muslim

BuzzFeed reports: British Muslims have detailed the innocent, everyday acts that have led to individuals being suspected as radicals, from holding open doors to writing class projects about foreign policy.

Amid international criticism of the arrest of a Texan schoolboy for building a clock his teacher thought was a hoax bomb, a new report highlights growing concern among UK Muslims that they are being unfairly targeted for being suspected extremists.

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) submitted the examples to David Anderson QC, the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, who included them in his annual report published on Thursday. In the report, Anderson warned the government’s counter-terrorism legislation risked alienating Muslims and could provoke a backlash in certain communities. [Continue reading…]


After winning a sweeping victory, how unelectable is Jeremy Corbyn?

Andrew McFadyen writes: Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labour leadership is like Aberdeen beating Real Madrid in a European final. It really happened, but you have to pinch yourself to believe it is true.

The 66-year-old, bearded left-winger was a 200/1 outsider when the contest began.

He scraped onto the ballot paper with just minutes to spare, only thanks to the charity nominations of MPs who leant him their signatures to “broaden the debate”.

Corbyn is everything that a modern professional politician shouldn’t be: crumpled, scruffy and principled.

He swept to victory promising to end austerity, abolish student tuition fees and scrap nuclear

His first act as leader was to attend a rally in support of refugees, at which he implored the government to support people who are desperate and need somewhere safe to live.

Corbyn’s critics deride him as a Trotskyite tribute act and utterly unelectable.

If this is true, they should be asking why he has just trounced his opponents.

The North London MP ran by far the most effective campaign, combining smart use of social media with old-fashioned public meetings and street-corner politics. [Continue reading…]


Syria rejects British proposal for Assad to lead transitional government

The Guardian reports: Syria has rejected Britain’s proposal that Bashar al-Assad could lead a transitional government for up to six months before stepping down, as part of a political solution to the country’s crisis and to end the wave of refugees heading to Europe to escape the war.

“What gives the British foreign secretary the right to decide for Syrians how long their president should stay in power?” Omran al-Zoubi, the Syrian information minister, told the Guardian in an exclusive interview in his Damascus office.

He said Britain was following “irrational and illogical” policies by attacking the only country seriously fighting Isis and other terrorists and urging its leader to step down. [Continue reading…]