Tag Archives: government

Global Successes & British failures?

Whilst the news has been focused on the financial aspects of the G20 summit of late, there’s also been a good scattering of news on international environmental issues. There seems now to be a general acceptance that we’re rapidly approaching, if not sailing past a ‘tipping point’ that sends us towards catastrophic climate change.

Even for those who don’t believe in the cause, there are undeniably good reasons to strive for energy efficiencies, and to remove the Western dependence on Middle-East oil. On a local scale, for individual homes and businesses, there’s a clear economic gain with a very short payback period by installing insulation and low-energy lighting, or simply by planning more efficiently.

At an international level, it’s surprising to see even fairly entrenched ‘traditional fuel’ organisations announcing that they are aiming for carbon-neutrality by 2050. Given this agreement includes companies like E.On and EDF, who are heavily into coal and nuclear respectively, it’s going to be quite a stretch. If they can collectively move forward on smart grid technologies and power distribution, though, the cost savings of stable, European power prices will be much more attractive than the volatile fossil fuels markets – especially if one factors in the cost of wars for oil. I was surprised by quotation from the president of the European Wind Energy Association on the relative prices of fuel –

At current fuel prices, electricity production costs from a new wind farm, coal plant and gas station are more or less the same.

I was under the impression renewables were still a fair bit more expensive. Of course, the statement needs to be taken with a pinch of salt given the source.

Elsewhere in the world, Barack Obama has promised to sign a climate bill into US law, a significant departure from the previous administration. The bill is likely to include a US cap-and-trade system for CO2 emissions, compatible with the system already in operation in Europe. It also seems that a significant amount of Obama’s economic stimulus money is being given to green power, which is great news. Interestingly even companies such as IBM are bidding for funds, in order to invest in smart metering & distribution. We’ll just have to hope that the bill doesn’t get too watered down, and that US carbon trading is more effective than the European scheme has been so far.

Closer to home, things are a little less optimistic. It seems there’s now a chance that the third runway at Heathrow won’t get built, but this relies on the fact that BAA won’t lodge a planning application until 2012, after the next general election, and that the Conservatives are significantly ahead in the polls. They have said they will prevent the project going ahead, as compared to the encouragement from Labour. Whilst I support many of the environmental moves the Tories are making – high speed rail instead of the runway being one – there are enough skeletons in their (not so hidden) closet that I couldn’t bring myself to vote for them.

Talking of Conservative idiocy, in a supposed cost cutting measure, Boris Johnson has cut the environmental staff of the GLA from 40 to 20, reducing the climate change & energy team from 10 to 3. This seems to fly in the face of his stated goal to make London the greenest city in the world. In isolation this would be frustrating – but perhaps necessary to save money – but alongside his abandoning of the Western congestion charge and paying mere lip service to other environmental schemes, it seems we’ll have to look elsewhere for leadership on the environment.

Privacy and the government

Unfortunately I’m having a busy time of it at the moment, with lots going on both in and out of work. I really wanted to write a decent post around this, but haven’t had the time.

For now, I’ll just link to two articles from the Guardian:

Revealed: police databank on thousands of protesters

This first article shows how police are routinely storing photos and videos of political campaigners or protesters. These people aren’t breaking the law, but their movements and behaviour are being compiled into a large intelligence, to be kept for seven years, alongside evidence of those convicted of public order (or worse) offences. It’s a massive violation of privacy, as far as I’m concerned.

The second article stretches this loss of privacy even further, with the former Whitehall security co-ordinator stating “Finding out other people’s secrets is going to involve breaking everyday moral rules.”

This to me is a staggering admission that the government and civil service are happy to breach the rights of privacy for innocent citizens by routinely capturing and mining it to spot ‘suspicious’ patterns. The data to be collected are “personal information about individuals that resides in databases such as advanced passenger information, airline bookings, and other travel data, passport and biometric data, immigration, identity and border records, criminal records and other governmental and private sector data, including financial and telephone and other communications records.”

Even more worrying (though perhaps unsurprising these days), there’s a good chance the data management will be outsourced to the private sector and not held by the government. This means that private organisations, quite likely outside the UK will be responsible for the security of your financial information, communications records (in other words your phone bills, and likely your emails), and travel records.

It seems there’s little general awareness of the scale of these plans. If you happen to stumble across this post, I recommend you try to learn more about this, and if you feel strongly, write to your MP.

Homeland 'Security'

We got a notice at work this morning about the US Visa Waiver programme, informing potential travellers to the US that the system is changing. As of 12th January 2009, it’s mandatory to register in a US government online system at least 72 hours before you travel, unless you’re a US citizen or have a Visa.

Into this system, you must provide:

  • Applicant information (Birth date, full name, email, gender and phone number)
  • Passport information (issued date, expiration date, number and country of issue)
  • Travel information (flight and city)
  • Address whilst in the US
  • Health information (diseases, mental illness)

So, in itself, it’s amazing that you’re expected to give up all this personal data to the US government before you even leave your own country. Beyond that, there’s the risk that this system gets hacked, and someone steals all this data about you.

But I’m absolutely staggered by the popup disclaimer you have to accept on entering the site (I’ve added the bold emphasis):

You are about to access a Department of Homeland Security computer system. This computer system and data therein are property of the U.S. Government and provided for official U.S. Government information and use.  There is no expectation of privacy when you use this computer system.  The use of a password or any other security measure does not establish an expectation of privacy. By using this system, you consent to the terms set forth in this notice. You may not process classified national security information on this computer system.  Access to this system is restricted to authorized users only.  Unauthorized access, use, or modification of this system or of data contained herein, or in transit to/from this system, may constitute a violation of section 1030 of title 18 of the U.S. Code and other criminal laws.  Anyone who accesses a Federal computer system without authorization or exceeds access authority, or obtains, alters, damages, destroys, or discloses information, or prevents authorized use of information on the computer system, may be subject to penalties, fines or imprisonment. This computer system and any related equipment is subject to monitoring for administrative oversight, law enforcement, criminal investigative purposes, inquiries into alleged wrongdoing or misuse, and to ensure proper performance of applicable security features and procedures.  DHS may conduct monitoring activities without further notice.

So I have to give up significant amounts of personal data, and have no ‘expectation of privacy’. Makes me think twice about whether going to the US is even worth it.