PunterNet, PR, and Bad Driving

Harriet Harman is not having a good time. She is accused of failing to stop at road traffic accident, she was embroiled in the  expenses claims fiasco, and she is the deputy leader of a party that just got dropped by the biggest selling paper in the UK. But, this is not why she is on this site.

She is mentioned here because of her statements about the website Punter Net. As the name of the site implies PunterNet is a website, for “punters”, or more precisely clients of prostitutes. It could be described as being similar to a Which? forum for users of prostitutes (not that Which? would like that analogy). PunterNet provides a surprisingly large amount of information about the prostitutes that are reviewed, for everything from costs and location, right down to wheel chair access.

Harriet Harman called for the website to be banned. And, as the site is hosted in California, she address the comment directly to the Californian governor, Arnold Swartzenager

Ms Harman’s exact statement was:

Surely it can’t be too difficult for the Terminator to terminate PunterNet…..If he doesn’t I’ve got a message for Arnie – I’ll be back!

British politicians don’t really pull off the James Bond style quips very well; Ms even Harman less so. Particularly, because it doesn’t make any sense.

Assuming that the Governor chooses to push forward a law to ban this site, and then California legislates against the site, both of which are a huge assumptions, then the site will simply be moved elsewhere. It could move to a neighboring state, or a different country, there will be no difference whatsoever.

What is frightening is that Harriet Harman doesn’t seem to know this. Presumably she is not aware that there are many sites in the world that contain material that the UK government doesn’t like, but can still be viewed from the UK. Everything from Al Qaeda promotional websites to child abuse images and extreme pornography. If she is not aware of this she is remarkably ill informed.

Even more strange is the fact that UK government effectively  operate a firewall that allows them to block almost anything and everything they want to. This has happened for quite some time, but hit the mainstream press recently when a page from Wikipedia was blocked.

How can the deputy prime minster not know this?

More accurately, either she, her advisors and script writers didn’t know any of this, or they did know this and still decided to push the idea of closing down a website, operating legally in a different country, as it fits in with their personal agenda.

The net effect?

The statements by Harriet Harman were in fact so ridiculous that the owners of PunterNet, stated that the recent press had produced lots of new traffic for the site:

I would like to thank you for the huge influx of traffic to my website which your actions have caused….I am sure that the ladies who are a part of the PunterNet community thank you as well, as they will no doubt benefit financially from the many new clients who might otherwise never have found them.

The Law

Historically, the UK has allowed prostitution. Rather choosing to legislate against those who exploit women, banning (in theory) brothels and pimps, put allowing individual women, working for themselves, to make their own choices; the morals for this are not commented on here. Therefore its strange that the UK Government wants to ban  a site, in a different country, which advertises something which can be legal both in the country it resides and the UK. Has she not seen all the adverts in UK magazines, and phone boxes, advertising “escorts”?

Police experience in the UK has learnt that providing safe environments for women to sell sex is the lesser of the two evils, when compared to the problems of “street walkers”. As a result, in many areas the police have decriminalized prostitution, by allowing the practice to continue unhindered.

The government states that they are concerned that about a spike in the sex industry during the Olympics and want to take action to stop this: This is laudable and may be accurate, with previous major sporting events showing a huge increase in the use of prostitutes. This demand for sex for cash leads to the demand for more prostitutes which, in turn, can lead to sex trafficking; and all of the human horrors that brings with it.

If it’s the governments intent is to stop the eastern European gangs kidnapping and moving young women around Europe, then perhaps the best place to start is not shutting down a website that operates in California, and has been since  1999 (according to the WHOIS database)

Privacy: Cameron and the Cameras

Apparently the tories are going to reduce survelliance in the UK, according to the Guardian today. If the conservatives get in (increasingly its more of when, rather than an if) they are looking to “reverse the rise of the surveillance state”.

This single policy alone will no doubt recieve support from a whole raft of people, who are not always aligned with the conservative party. After everybody from MI5 and MI6, to the House of Lords have stated that the surveillance, in the UK, is already too much. Will they actually follow their policy? Will they actually give up so many powers? That is a different question, and probably far less certain then if they will win the next election.

The article in the Guardian states

The Conservatives will today promise to “reverse the rise of the surveillance state” by outlining plans for fewer giant government databases and stronger powers to protect personal privacy.

The Tories’ policy paper, to be launched by the shadow justice secretary, Dominic Grieve, confirms a commitment to scrap the national identity card scheme, including its central register, and the children’s ContactPoint database.

The paper also lays out new measures to ensure that all legislation is accompanied by a privacy impact assessment, that there are stronger powers for the information commissioner, and that a minister and a senior civil servant in each department take responsibility for the security of personal data.

The 11-point plan has been drawn up in response to Labour’s reliance “on mammoth databases and wide powers of data-sharing, on the pretext that it will make government more effective and the citizen more secure”

Privacy: France and the Internet

“The French National Assembly has passed a draft law that would allow illegal downloaders to be thrown off the net.”

France has started the route to producing the toughest laws in Europe, kicking people off the internet. However, even if this law passes it is still far less dranconian than the law original proposed by Sarkozy earlier this year. The original plan by Sarkozy suggested that software would be installed on every PC to monitor for illegal activity.

The plan for the current laws are:

The proposed legislation operates under a “three strikes” system. A new state agency would first send illegal file-sharers a warning e-mail, then a letter and finally cut off their connection if they were caught a third time.

The European Parliament is currently considering whether cutting off internet access is a breach of human rights.”

This is pretty similar to the laws planned by the UK. The obvious problem with this is evidence, or lack of it.

When the record industry state a “person” is found to be downloading or uploading material illegally, what they have actually found is that an IP address is related to a particualr activivty. Then, through court orders they have found the home the IP address was given to at the time of the inciden, then through the bill payer they have obtained the name of a “person”.

It is that person who gets blammed for that activity. Which is quite ridiculous as multiple people will use that IP address – i.e. family who all use the same internet connect, friends who may come by and use a computer while they are at the house, friends who may use their laptop and connect to the internet while they are visiting, neighbours who hoop on the wireless connection which has not been secured properly, hackers who use the wireless connection for their own nefarious purposes. All of thesee sceanrios could result in an innocent people being banned from the internet.

The EU is not likely to see this as they are looking at the issues of banning a guilty person from the internet, rather than the issue of banning a innocent person from the internet in error. Plus, as the politicains  around europe are clearly in the pockets of the entertainment industry, there is no reason that the politicians in europe  would not also be in the same situation.

Data Seizures at Borders

Recently this story came up in the news:

Travelers arriving at U.S. borders may soon be confronted with their laptops, PDAs, and other digital devices being searched, copied and even held by customs agents — all without need to show suspicion for cause.

Like most privacy issues this subject will divided people into two camps – the left and right. Those on the left who think that personal privacy, above everything, is critical and if we don’t have personal privacy then the world will be ran by crazy dictators and fascists. Those on the right think that its fine to give up all the privacy we have because of all those crazy terrorists who have their finger over the button of a nuclear bomb, ready to release it at any moment: It is only by reading our emails and intercepting the phones calls can those boys in blue, green, or dark shades, protect us.

Ok, those two sides may be slightly polarized, and very slightly exaggerated, but you get the idea.

The argument put forward by law enforcement is that it is no different to search a computer as to searching other devices, e.g. your brief case or your suitcase. This argument is wrong, for so many reasons, but here are the two biggies: Scale and Content

Scale

Traditionally people don’t carry around tones of paper documents, and all the letters they have ever received, and especially not on multinational trips.  It’s just not something you do. Electronically this is, of course, easy to do, and we do it all the time. It seems obvious to say, but apparently not obvious to those looking at privacy issues in the US.

People carry around their data and don’t delete as they don’t need to. Giving anybody access to all your data is hugely concerning, from both a personal and a professional perspective. If customs can search the laptops of travelers, without reason, then it is the equivalent of giving them a warrant to search every office in the world.

Content

The second problem is content. People keep things on their laptop, lots of things that tells you about them and their habits, perhaps information that even they are not aware was stored on their laptops.

How many people use Outlook, Outlook Express, or AOL to download their email onto their laptop? A lot is the answer. All of those people will be allowing US Customs access to their personal emails.

What about databases? People are always moving data around (we know this as its always being lost). If there is a database on your laptop the US can have it if they “search”  your computer.  This will give them a huge amount of information about you, your company and/or your clients.

Passwords, now this is a biggie. Many people “cache” their passwords. This means that they type the password in and ask the computer to store it – you know if you do this because you will see dots or **** appear when you log on to something, as the password has been typed already.  If you do this and you fly across the US border, this is an issue. Cached passwords, as the name implies are stored on the operating systems and can be taken out. Extracting this information, within Window’s operating systems is relatively trivial for a computer forensics investigator. What does this mean? It means the US will have access to all of your personal emails accounts, company VPN, and possibly bank details. What they do with this after wards is a whole different issue, but it only takes a stroke of a legislator’s pen to allow the US to access your data, remotely.

Feasibility

The risks described above are certainly a possibility, but are they plausible? Is it actually feasibly for the US Customs to take all of the laptop data in a reasonable time scale, and then do something useful with it?

In short, yes.

Hard drives can be imaged at huge speeds, up to 6 GB a minute. This means that piece of data from a 100 GB hard drive can be obtained in around 30 minutes, allowing for taking the hard drive out and handing it back again. This can also be done on mass. For example 10 people could be delayed for 30 minutes, while customs suck up all of the data.  But if this too slow, programs are available just to take the active data, i.e. just the more recent/undeleted data.  This would allow access to key data incredibly quickly.

Once the data has been obtained, doing something useful with it is, in short, easy and relatively cheap (given the scale). But once they have the data, they have all the time they need to look at it.

Some people, surprisingly, still think that the Windows password provides some sort of security against those in the computer forensics industry – it does not, it makes no difference whatsoever. This means that, unless a third party encryption tool is in use, that the US Customs will have access to all of your data. Pulling out cached passwords can be automated, as can building databases of communications, who is talking to who.

As the US has been buying up, and obtaining, databases for years from around the world, including the NSA obtaining phone records, it seems highly unlikely they would ignore such a huge volume of data sitting within arm’s reach of them.

Nowadays there is lots of software, commercially available, that is designed to pull together this huge information and allow people draw together assumptions about the information they are seeing, building pictures and creating conclusions.

Is it right?

Is it right that the US government is able to build up a huge network of data about you, your passwords, your personal emails, your files, your company files, your bank details, your pictures, etc, with no evidence, or even suspicion against you?

That is a moral decision, and not a technical one. But it’s one that must be taken by looking at all of the facts, and not just accepting that a computer search is the same as a search of a brief case.

On  a personal note on the issue of “Is it right that the US government is able to build up a huge network of data about you, your passwords, your personal emails, your files, your company files, your bank details, your pictures, etc, with no evidence, or even suspicion against you?” I think the clue is in the question.

Girls (Scream) Aloud: A Test Case?

Is the Girls (Scream) Aloud case really a test case? Does it affect any laws?

The horror/porn/rape story of involving Girls Aloud has generated thousands of articles, and huge media interest as it was to be biggest test of the obscene publications act since the Lady Chatterley case.

The rules of the game where simple:

Darryn Walker was arrested for writing and publishing a story that, by any “normal” moral standard is awful, he would be tried in court in relation to definition of obscenity. The outcome of the game was one of two options:

1) If Mr. Walker was found guilty then this would be a landmark decision on what cannot be published on the internet, this would be a “triumph for moral decency”.

2) If Mr. Walker was found not guilty, then it would a “triumph for freedom of speech”. This would effectively mean that the Obscene publications act was dead.

People on both sides of the divide were vocal in the fact that they were, without doubt, right.

In a country where Nuts and Zoo make soft porn common place, the idea that Lady Chatterley’s lover was banned, for so long, seems astounding. But even in these times where, according to a BBC survey, the most popular career choice for young female British teens is “Glamour Model”, the Girls (Scream) Aloud story is truly offensive, by most standards.

But does that mean it should be banned?

If it had just been written in a book the case, and the ramifications, would have been more clearly defined.But it was published on the internet the case was far more complex. To make matters more interesting, the servers the story was originally published in where outside of the UK.

Was the UK going to legislate about data outside of the UK? Parliament can do that, but would they?

The Obscene Publications Act is currently aimed at UK material, would the courts want to effectively change legislation? Because of these questions the case had massive consequences. The UK Government could have used their ability to censor material on the internet with technology, rather than making a case out of it. The government use technology to filter the internet regulary and with controversial subjects. Or they could have made a deal for the data to be removed.

Despite other options being available, the decision was made to press charges.

The result of this huge trial? Not Guilty.

So a triumph for freedom of speech? Well not quite.

On the day of the judgment, 29th June 2009, Mr Walker was found not guilty, but this was because the Crown Prosecution Service, effectively walked away from the case when they offered no evidence.

This was largely because the prosecution had stated that the material could be found with the simple searches, and possibly by those who are genuinely looking for information on Girls Aloud. However the defense provided evidence that showed the story could only be found with specific searches. With this the CPS withdrew, and the judge submitted a formal verdict of not guilty.

But as no judgment was given about the case, the facts were not discussed or debated. As a result this is not really a test case, though it’s probably a show of the CPS resolve, or lack of it, to prosecute in these circumstances.

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