Skip to content
June 3, 2013 / Hannah

The last POST?

On Friday, POSTnote 436: Monitoring Internet Communications went live on POST’s website!

Check it out.

The timing was pretty good: the debate is just getting going again in light of the tragic events in Woolwich. Some are claiming that the Communications Data Bill could have helped to avert this type of attack, while others argue the opposite. Meanwhile, the Home Office seems determined to push ahead with legislation, despite opposition from the Liberal Democrats and others.

The POSTnote itself has (predictably!) already divided opinions. Despite rigorous internal and external reviews, I suspect this is inevitable when such a controversial issue is discussed. Condensing such a complex subject into four pages was no easy task, and I spent many hours with those at POST who helped me with the drafting – discussing and rewriting it to make it as balanced as possible. There were many issues I would have liked to include which didn’t make the cut: most of which are covered in the excellent and detailed report from the Joint Committee (though when reading, be aware this was published in 2012, prior to recent developments).

On a lighter note (no pun intended…) I moved back home a couple of weeks ago after a final visit to POST’s offices to tie up loose ends. It’s great to be home, but I was very sad to leave POST. I made some great friends and had a fantastic time researching the note, spending time in a friendly workplace with some seriously smart people. If any PhD students are reading this, I’d highly recommend checking out fellowship opportunities!

As for whether this really is my last post: probably not. I’ve enjoyed blogging about my experiences and now I’m back to the PhD I’m going to try to keep it up. Thanks to everyone who’s been reading and giving me feedback in real life and online, I really appreciate it.

April 25, 2013 / Hannah

Nick Clegg Vetoes the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’

Big developments in the internet surveillance debate today: Nick Clegg has outright vetoed the majority of the proposals in the draft Communications Data Bill, with the exception of a database for IP matching (which is already pretty routinely used, and one of the least contentious issues under discussion). Lib Dem MPs and privacy groups have taken to the internet to celebrate (how appropriate), while the Home Office has so far maintained a dignified silence on the matter. Given all the furore there’s been about this issue, I’m surprised it hasn’t been more prominent in the news – though perhaps I’ve become so immersed in it I’m overestimating public interest. Or perhaps, as some commentators are saying, Clegg’s veto doesn’t necessarily spell the end for the bill.

I spoke to Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert today, who has been a steadfast opponent of the bill since it appeared before Parliament. He told me that it was highly unlikely that we’d see another draft of the bill as long as the coalition remained in power, though didn’t rule out the possibility of future governments resurrecting it in one form or another. Labour has remained tight lipped on this subject, so who knows what developments we’d see if there’s a Labour majority at the next election?

And what of the POSTnote? Thankfully all my research hasn’t been in vain, as the note is primarily a technical briefing, and nothing’s changed as far as technical capabilities and challenges are concerned. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that I sent it for review two days before this announcement, but at least it gives me the chance to see what the reviewers make of these significant developments!

 

Edit: Meanwhile, as my colleague just pointed out, the US seems to be doing the exact opposite.

April 23, 2013 / Hannah

Controversy!

Sorry for the protracted silence – it’s mostly because I’ve done little else in the last few weeks except draft and redraft my POSTnote. After grappling with numerous drafts and struggling to fit into four pages what took a Joint Committee 101 pages to discuss, it went for internal review last week. What followed was a review meeting which, while very productive, got off to a comically conflicted start:

Reviewer 1: “I think this is one of the best POSTnotes we’ve had, it’s excellent and I really enjoyed reading it.”

Reviewer 2: “I think the complete opposite, it’s an absolute mess and I’m not happy with it at all.”

No exaggeration, those are almost verbatim quotes. I shouldn’t have been surprised  – internet surveillance is such a divisive issue, it’s quite fitting that my take on it also sharply divided opinions. Recent comments from David Cameron’s technology adviser reveal the extent of the conflict within the coalition, never mind elsewhere.

At the heart of the issue are  two crucial aims: to uphold the right to privacy, and to enforce laws and protect national security. Operating in a rapidly evolving technological climate, GCHQ and the Home Office say that current surveillance laws are simply not up to the job any more, and as a result they’re missing out on significant information needed to prevent terrorism (warning: link contains massive hyperbole). The main regulatory instrument for surveillance, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) was passed in 2000, before Facebook was even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. Internet communication has come a long way since then, and the general argument that RIPA needs updating hasn’t caused too much controversy.

What has caused anger and upset however, is the Draft Communications Data Bill, which was presented before Parliament in May 2012. In a nutshell, where information about people’s internet activities were previously only stored at the request of law enforcement, the bill proposed blanket data retention for 12 months (see here page 232 for a more detailed explanation on what types of data would be stored). With improved technologies and the decline in per-minute billing, ISPs no longer retain as much data as they used to about our internet communications. The retention period called for in the bill would ensure that law enforcement agencies are able to access the information they need to investigate crimes. While this would undoubtedly make life easier for police officers and security services, the draft bill attracted strong criticism from privacy groups, industry and the Parliamentary scrutiny committee. Criticism has largely focused on risks to privacy and freedom from suspicion, but technical issues have been raised too, including fears that the new regulation could stifle innovation in the internet sector.

So what’s my opinion on the bill? Simple: I don’t have one.

…not convinced? Didn’t think so. Of course I have an opinion – lots of opinions – on all of this. You’d have to be disengaged to the point of sociopathy to spend three months immersed in this debate, interview numerous passionate stakeholders, and remain entirely neutral. But the simple fact is that POST, and by extension me, is non-partisan. Its remit is to provide balanced analysis of public policy issues in the scientific/technology sphere, allowing MPs, peers, and any other readers to form their own opinions. My opinions have their place, and that place is outside of work and away from the POSTnote.

Writing a truly balanced analysis of such a controversial high stakes topic has been a huge challenge. In some ways it’s very different from academic papers, blog posts and articles, where a strong argument is often considered a mark of quality. Presenting a nuanced briefing with a narrative structure, without descending into “he said, she said”, has been difficult at times, and I hope that the final note will reflect the efforts I’ve made on that score. I say ‘challenge’ rather than ‘problem’ though, because it’s been an almost overwhelmingly positive experience. Having to really consider and present both sides of the debate has left me with more in-depth knowledge, and more confidence in some of my political opinions (outside the office!). Plus it’s just plain exciting to be working on such a topical and hotly debated issue.

As for the review meeting, after a rocky start all the reviewers agreed that while the content was pretty much there, the note’s structure needed work. It’s been re-jigged, polished and pruned and is now ready to go out to external reviewers. Do you think they’ll all agree with each other…?

March 11, 2013 / Hannah

Meeting African Academies representatives (and some more interviewing)

Last week Chandy Nath, POST’s deputy director, met delegates from some of the African science academies who are visiting the UK as part of the Royal Society Pfizer African Academies Programme. During my internship at the Royal Society in 2010 I became friendly with Ruth Cooper, a senior policy advisor for the Royal Society who oversees their involvement in the programme. When I saw that Chandy had arranged to meet her and her visitors for lunch I asked if I could possibly come along, and she generously agreed.

It was lovely to see Ruth again and catch up with news from the Science Policy Centre. It was also a privilege to meet representatives from the Ghanaian, Tanzanian and Ethiopian academies of science. On a walk round the Palace of Westminster, I was able to chat to them about what POST fellows do, hear from them about how their scientific academies differ from the Royal Society, and discuss the representation of science in government in our different countries. And how we cope with the cold and rainy UK weather!

Aside from this and PMQs, last week was pretty much taken up with interviews. They’ve all been hugely informative and interesting and I’ve felt that I’m getting a much better grasp of the topic and the main themes I’ll need to focus on for the POSTnote. This is largely thanks to the interviewees: everyone I’ve spoken to so far has not only been extremely well informed and able to explain things clearly, but also incredibly friendly and generous with their time. It’s made the interview stage of my research (which can be tiring) a real pleasure. My most recent interviewee was so enagaging that we spent a good ten minutes discussing extreme events and climate change before I remembered that we’d actually met to talk about internet surveillance!

Unbelieveably however, it’s now been a month since I started at POST (it’s absolutely flown by), so this week I’m coming to the end of the interviews and starting to think about drafting. It’s a little daunting to think about condensing everything I’ve learned into four pages, but I’m looking forward to getting stuck in…

March 8, 2013 / Hannah

PMQs

I went to the House of Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. Tickets are in high demand (see the end of this post on how to get one) and it’s normally necessary to be invited by an MP, but Amy (fellow POSTie) and I managed to score some since POST employees are categorised as House of Commons staff – bonus!

Passing through central lobby (whose grandeur never fails to impress me, even after several visits), we relinquished our bags to security and joined the queue for the public gallery. We’d been assigned to the Serjeant-at-Arms private box, which sounds very grand but was actually behind the main gallery and further away from the action, so to speak. Still a lovely perk though, and added to the sense of occasion. I’d seen the House of Commons chamber once before on a school trip about 15 years ago, so I wasn’t surprised by the fact that it looks almost cramped in there – much smaller than you’d imagine. The public gallery though, which is never shown on TV as far as I can tell, was unexpectedly enormous. Above the chamber, behind (presumably bulletproof) plexiglass, are rows and rows of public seats, all the same familiar green as the members’ seats below. Throughout the session, a huge variety of spectators filed in and out – people in school uniforms, suits, jeans and t-shirt and some very opulent thawbs – all expertly herded by stern-faced ushers in full morning dress. It felt a little like going to the theatre.

The sense of ‘going to the show’ didn’t end there. Public spectators are strictly prohibited for making any kind of “noise, demonstration or disturbance” during debates, but the same rule most certainly doesn’t apply to the MPs below. I hadn’t watched a televised debate for quite a while, so PMQs was a slightly startling reminder of how rowdy they can be. We came in at the tail end of some robust questioning of the Northern Irish Secretary by various Northern Irish MPs, during which David Cameron arrived to a chorus of “‘raaaaay” from his side of the chamber, and “raaaaaaaarrghhh” from the other. Soon, he and Ed Miliband were trading potshots from each side of the table, spurring each other on to ever more elaborate insults and rebuttals, while backbenchers heckled from the sidelines. Meanwhile directly opposite our box, Mr Speaker lounged on his chair with a look of amused tolerance, interjecting occasionally to admonish the Members when they shouted too loudly.

It was great theatre, with both party leaders clearly playing to the crowd  – anyone who caught it on the radio/TV will remember Cameron repeatedly likening Miliband and Ed Balls to ‘croupiers in a casino’, and his backhanded compliment to Bob Russel on his waistcoat. A few times I found myself laughing out loud along with most of the other spectators, though I have to admit the whole thing left me feeling a little bemused. I see the need for opposing parties to closely scrutinise and question each other’s policies, but reasoned debate seemed to have slightly fallen by the wayside in favour of bombast and point-scoring.

Things quietened down after PMQs however, when – in the midst of an undignified mass exodus of MPs and spectators – William Hague got up to read his statement on Syria. As you’ve probably seen in the news, the main thrust was that the UK will be stepping up its involvement in the conflict, supplying armoured vehicles and other supplies to opposition forces. The response from the Shadow Home Secretary was more measured than what we’d seen previously: he outlined the points with which he agreed, and posed a serious of questions. Unfortunately I had to leave for some interview prep before this item of business had concluded, but I’m glad I stayed for the start as it made me realise that not all Commons debates are as boisterous as PMQs.

Once we’d retrieved our bags, Amy and I discussed our impressions of the debate on the walk back to Millbank. Strangely perhaps, we both felt it had given us a new appreciation of the fact that a lot of the work that the government and Parliament do happens away from the cut and thrust of the chambers. Behind the scenes, in the offices and meeting rooms of the Palace and Portcullis House, select committees (more on these later), ministers, peers, civil servants and parliamentary staff are working on all the things which later get debated: drafting legislation, subjecting it to scrutiny, briefing minsters… I’ve been incredibly impressed by the amount of work, detail and evidence gathering that goes into select committee reports such as the one on the Draft Communications Data Bill which I’ve been using a lot for my work. I’m looking forward to attending some of the public evidence sessions held by select committees, as I’ve been told they’re very different from Parliamentary debates: watch this space!

 

How to see debates in Parliament:

The best source of up to date information is Parliament’s website. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Entry to nearly all debates except for PMQs isn’t ticketed, but is open to the public on a first come, first served basis. The agenda for parliamentary business is here (remember to check out what’s on in the House of Lords and other venues as well!)

If you see something you want to attend, or you simply want to see democracy in action, you can just turn up at the Cromwell Green entrance to Parliament on St Margaret Street. Be prepared to go through security and then to queue for the chamber once you get inside – leave plenty of time and bear in mind that ‘hot topic’ debates usually attract more visitors and hence more queues.

 

How to see Prime Minister’s Questions:

PMQs is held on Wednesdays at 12pm. Pretty much the only way to get tickets unless you work for Parliament is to be invited by an MP. Unless you know one personally, the best bet is to write to your local MP – if you’re not sure who that is, check here: http://findyourmp.parliament.uk/

Be prepared to wait a few weeks for a response/tickets, and to be flexible about which week you attend.

If you’re thinking of visiting Parliament and you’ve got a question you can’t find on the website, feel free to drop me a line!

 

 

March 7, 2013 / Hannah

My week in factoids

 

The number of active Facebook users worldwide rose from 1 million in 2004 to 1.06 billion in 2012

The biggest jump proportionally was between 2004 and 2005 – from 1 million to 5.5 million.

The biggest absolute jump was between 2009 and 2010 – from 350 million to 608 million.

 

 

74.2% of UK residents go online at least once a month…

Adults in Scotland are the UK’s most dedicated home internet users, clocking up an average of 10.6 hours a week.

 

 …although 11% of  UK residents have never used the internet.

This surprised me at first, before I remembered that my own grandmother has never used the internet and doesn’t intend to start. Go On UK would like to change this however, with their work to end ‘digital exclusion’.

 

The volume of mobile data transferred over UK networks increased by 4000% between 2007 and 2010

That’s not a typo.

Huge increases in mobile internet use (amongst other things) have lead to a deficit in the number of IP addresses available for mobiles. This is currently dealt with using dynamic IP allocation and sharing, usually a system known as carrier-grade NAT. IP version 6 (IPv6), a new system of IP address allocation slated to roll out later this decade, will solve this problem by making a much larger number of IP addresses available.

 

AUSCANNZUKUS isn’t an ancient curse…

…even if it sounds a bit like one. It’s a very long acronym, standing for Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States, and refers to a naval command, control, communications and computers interoperability programme involving these countries. It’s also known as ‘Five Eyes’ in the UK and US.

 

It is NOT illegal to die in the Palace of Westminster.

I was told during an informal tour of Parliament that anyone perishing on the premises was entitled to a state funeral, and that dying in the Palace is therefore prohibited. I thought this would make a great little titbit to include here, but sadly this  common myth appears to have been debunked.

 

 

March 4, 2013 / Hannah

The internet is a series of tubes

The photo on the left is the fountain in front of the Houses of Parliament – when it was really cold the other day it froze solid and looked really cool (in both senses of the word!) Sorry for the poor quality photo, my phone camera’s not the best, and I didn’t want to leave my gloves off for long for fear of frostbite. See the end of this post also for another comically poorly executed shot of Parliament glowing in the late afternoon sun (and a close up of my thumb). I’m being totally spoiled by walking past these sights every day!

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks grappling with the internet. Not in the sense of, “where is all this spam coming from?” and “why is my computer making that noise AGAIN?” but rather the nuts and bolts of how it actually works. It turns out that for those of us without a computer science or network engineering degree, the answer boils down to: in a VERY complicated way. Working my way through explanations of ports, IP addresses, data packets and communication protocols, I’ve been in real danger of getting totally bogged down in jargon. One consolation is that the average internet user seems equally mystified by some of the inner working of this technology that we take for granted. An informal poll of my team-mates for last week’s pub quiz (we won! Sorry, I had to crowbar that in there) yielded answers to “how does the internet work” ranging from, “I don’t care as long as it works” to “pixies in boxes”; with one apparent Ted Stevens fan informing me that “the internet is a series of tubes”.

This is the real challenge and beauty of POSTnotes though: taking a subject which may be quite hellishly complicated, and presenting it to a lay audience in an accessible way – without abridging the facts so much that they’re drained of all meaning. And internet surveillance, a hefty topic which straddles technology, policy and society (all evolving rapidly), certainly seems to epitomise this challenge – I’m really lucky to have been given this area to research. Not only is it timely, with the Draft Communications Data Bill being redrafted as we speak, it’s also something that impinges on nearly all aspects of our lives. Lucky for me, because it can be so much easier to understand a difficult concept when it directly relates to your day to day activities.

This last point has been nicely demonstrated by the three people that I interviewed today. Generous with their time and knowledge, they were very patient as I tried to understand some of the concepts they were discussing. Rather than ploughing on in the abstract, they were able to come up with familiar examples that were much easier for me to relate to. “When you send an email…” “When you use Skype…” It sounds like a small thing, but having a real-life example to ‘hook’ the technical details onto made them much easier to visualise and understand.

A new appreciation of the power of case studies isn’t the only thing I’ve gained in the last couple of weeks. Yes, I’ve absorbed so much new knowledge about the internet that my brain may be in danger of starting to leak from my ears. But perhaps more importantly I’m getting a huge amount of practice in thinking about and researching a complex system – very useful for my PhD research, and undoubtedly in other areas of life too. Not only am I mind-mapping like it’s going out of style, I’ve also realised how useful it can be to have informal discussions away from the desk. I have to admit to having a slight tendency to completely isolate myself when I’m trying to crack a problem – getting impatient with anything I perceive as a distraction from beating my head against the metaphorical brick wall. However, in addition to the interviews, a couple of very useful experiences last week got me to re-evaluate this attitude and realise that talking about things with someone removed from the problem can help to get over a roadblock. A quip to a friend about supercookies not being as fun as they sound led to a more serious discussion about our daily browsing habits, and what cookies are doing in the background while we surf the web. I came away with a much clearer understanding of what cookies do (and a craving for chocolate chips, I can’t imagine why). And a lunchtime discussion with a fellow POSTie turned into a slight confidence booster:

Me:  It can be hard to even understand the explanations of these acronyms… I looked up TCP last week and it started talking about protocol stacks… what’s a protocol stack?

Him:  Hah, it sounds like nouveau cuisine, like those vegetable stacks you get.

Me:  Oh well it’s not a physical stack, it’s a set of interacting standard operating procedures for networking. It’s called a stack because each one in the set builds on the one ‘below’.

Him:  …So you do understand it then.

Me:  …huh.

There’s probably hope for me yet.

blog HoP

Not an attempt to balance light and shade, just a very incompetent photographer.