Category Archives: uk
Blighty applies its usual monstrous double-standards:
June 15th: Drunk jailed for pissing next to a memorial to a recent hero. He had unreservedly apologised, and it would seem reasonable to suppose the apology was genuine. He doesn’t look to me as if he realises what the column to his left is!
Today (latest in an ongoing story): Government/Foreign secretary again posture over new law for Hong Kong. Apparently on the grounds that it could criminalise disrespect for such things as the Chinese national anthem, and thus inhibit free expression.
For the record, yes I find the drunk disgusting (though many drunks do worse things), and have spent a lifetime not pissing in such public places. And yes, I think we should be allowed to disrespect things like flags and national anthems. I wonder if the HK authorities would indeed take action against a Hendrix (or indeed, which Western countries would still tolerate his modern equivalent)? When campaigners for freedom around the world express concern, that’s entirely legitimate. But coming from the UK government, it stinks of hypocrisy.
Today’s big announcement: “track and trace” to go live tomorrow. Five days earlier than previously announced, and nobody expected the app to be ready for that. Even those supposed to be running the programme were only told this afternoon.
It’s Designed to Fail in so many ways: total centralisation (which has been the UK government’s response throughout – have we learned nothing from the failure of Soviet centralised planning?), an app developed by the government’s mates ignoring both the established (e.g. the South Korean app) and the hopefully-competent (Apple/Google), and a workforce not told what they’re supposed to do.
But we knew that already. Bringing the date forward makes it officially a Dead Cat: give the meeja something to talk about other than disgraceful Cummings and Gowings, free of the rules affecting the rest of us (even government advisers Calderwood and Ferguson). Mephistopheles himself is, it seems, to be exempted if Stuttley can possibly make the story go away.
Here’s a thought. Could bringing track-and-trace forward have caught the inevitable scammers off-guard? Could we perhaps survive the rest of the week before anyone is scammed by someone posing as being from the programme? For this is surely fertile hunting ground for criminals: a call from someone tracing Covid contacts should elicit a wealth of information for phishing and identity theft from a victim anxious to cooperate. I expect willing subjects will leak a lot of inexcusably-valuable secrets, too. And not just on themselves, but on friends, family, colleagues who happen to be identified as possible contacts.
As for the UK app, I’ve been half-meaning to comment on that, so here goes – though today’s announcement serves a second purpose of backpedaling from the focus on it. Concerns have been raised over privacy, and it’s been widely pointed out that its centralised privacy-violating approach is unnecessarily complex, inefficient, and different to that of many countries. For myself, I might bring myself to live with that if it looked like a valid contribution to public health – a supposition now as dead as the cat. But I’m certainly not going to go around making my phone a sitting duck by broadcasting bluetooth to every malefactor who might be listening. Neither should anyone else who has valuable information – such as banking apps or payment-enabled channels – on their ‘phone! I wonder how long it’ll be before government underwrites losses from phones through their app – or more likely requires the banks to do so?
And the whole programme headed by a party-political appointee whose claim to fame is that for years under her stewardship, Talktalk became a byword for all that could go wrong in an ISP and then more – an unassailable reputation as the worst-run in the business.
Hard on the heels of my blog post on the subject of the new lurgy, I find myself succumbed to a lurgy. Only a mild one, but I’ve removed myself from this evening’s concert and meal out and will check NHS advice before resuming social life.
Or rather, I removed myself from the meal out with my friends, that Jen had arranged for after the concert. ‘Cos the concert itself was one of many cultural events to be cancelled by its organisers. This evening I’d’ve been in the audience, but three concerts I am (or was) due to perform in this spring have also been cancelled or are at risk.
Yet our government, unlike many others, hasn’t actually banned events like these. They’re leaving it to event organisers. I suspect there’s an important beneficiary of that: insurers of all kinds of events could be on the hook for financial losses if the government forced them to close down, but can escape that if the decision comes from event organisers. Perhaps they’ll legislate but are leaving time for events near enough to have incurred substantial costs to be cancelled beforehand?
I also heard on t’wireless a discussion programme on coronavirus that included a number of callers. A couple of interesting nuggets emerged from that: quite a few callers described symptoms very similar to mine (evidently it’s a lurgy “doing the rounds”), and many callers complained that they wanted to get tested for coronavirus but couldn’t. Even those with very good reasons (for example a GP keen to know whether he would be personally safe to treat virus sufferers once he’s recovered) had faced an impenetrable wall of bureaucracy.
So we’ve moved from attempting to refusing to count cases, thus perhaps paving the way to fudge relevant statistics. They’re talking about “herd immunity”, which would imply a large majority of the entire population going down with the virus. At a 2% death rate, that could be a million deaths!
Quite a contrast to the draconian and stupid measures we had to rid ourselves of Foot&Mouth (against which a vaccine is available) back in 2001. Have Brits really changed so much in less than a generation that we’ll no longer obey rules? Particularly when the threat this time is to humans, and the rules (if well-considered) have a purpose other than to support the economic interests of a small number of very big and very rich farmers!
I think perhaps we need a watch on our devious prime minister. His sycophantic party, rid of its moderates in the Stalinist purge last autumn, looks unlikely to hold him to account.
Today’s big announcement: sale of new fossil-fuel-powered cars to be banned from 2035. Great (if it happens). Just a shame no such thing happened much earlier in my life. It’s a good signal to be sending to the world – insofar as anyone believes him. Not that many will: if actions speak louder than words, his unexplained sacking of Claire O’Neill from the Glasgow summit, coming hard on the heels of the Flybe bailout, drives a Chelsea Tractor through his credibility on the environment.
On the other hand, the man who brought Boris Bikes to London seems likely to be someone genuinely keen to breathe cleaner air. I expect he’ll be well-pleased if we hit the target. It’s just not credible that that’s the primary motive for making the announcement today.
Car industry reacts with alarm (well they would, wouldn’t they)? My first thought: this pre-empts more announcements of them reducing capacity here, and the unspoken brexit-bonus headlines: people who voted to lose their jobs, lose their jobs. Now there’s a new scapegoat. But that’s not really plausible: much more likely he wants the industry to stay. His announcement, and the industry reaction, are preparing for some big bungs of taxpayer money to bribe them to stay here and invest in re-tooling to produce electric cars.
I wonder if this could be Good News for my very small shareholding in one of the companies providing charging points for electric cars? I see them in quite a few places now (for example, Lidl’s car park), but the bottleneck isn’t them, it’s the electricity generation and distribution capacity.
Once upon a time, I wrote a few thoughts on Mrs Thatcher’s death. Today it’s time to bid farewell to her legacy. Stuttley has declared its destruction now to be not merely his agenda, but a fundamental priority.
Of course, that’s not how he puts it. He says we shall not be bound by EU rules. Which sounds on the face of it entirely reasonable. I’m inclined to believe he (mostly) means it when he assures the world he doesn’t intend a race to the bottom: insofar as he wants that, EU membership has not really held him back. After all, we have exemptions from EU directives and programmes we haven’t signed up to.
The issue with those EU rules is that they are exactly what makes the Single Market, Mrs Thatcher’s greatest project and most important legacy. For it was she more than anyone who persuaded governments and people around Europe to create a Single Market, and indeed it was she – or rather her civil servants – who wrote many (maybe even most) of the rules we’re now rejecting.
With Blair/Brown having abandoned monetarism and let credit rip, and recent governments looking back to 1970s socialism such as bailouts for lame ducks from banks to Flybe, her domestic legacy was already largely gone. Now it’s her greatest achievement, red-tape-free trade throughout the world’s greatest market. Ironic indeed that remaining beneficiaries will be countries she worked so hard to persuade!
If you’d told me in the 1980s that Attlee’s achievements would outlive Thatcher’s, I suspect I’d have been quite seriously incredulous. How things change!
p.s. Does anyone else see Stuttley’s “Canada-style agreement” as laying the ground for blaming the EU? He’ll very publicly make demands that are not a problem for Canada but utterly incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement, then loudly condemn the EU for refusing them.
As we approach the end of the era of relative independence from our Orange Overlord, it was inevitable we’d see some kind of show-fight, to deflect attention and send out a message that we were “sovereign”. The necrofeliac will want a bigger cat than a regular moggie this time.
A few days ago, the news was from Davos: Chancellor Javid will go ahead with his digital services tax against US objections, and face a token trade war. In the context of the French having backed off from superficially-similar proposals, that was somewhat impressive, though not really sexy. The US reaction – proposing tariffs on car imports (what car imports?) – looks far too muted for this to be the Big One.
And indeed, it was just the prelude. Today we have an announcement, and news stories that are making mountains out of molehills, both in what’s been announced here and in the reactions to it. Our telecoms networks are allowed to buy equipment from Huawei. A lot of staged anger; likely also a few complete idiots whose anger is real. I don’t suppose this’ll be the last disagreement, but the effort that’s gone in to it suggests it could be The Big One.
And journalists playing right into their hands. On the BBC radio news this evening, an interview with a congressman Jim Banks, who is introducing a bill to ban intelligence sharing with countries who use Huawei (um, close Menwith Hill? Yeah, right). In that interview, but not noticed by the interviewer, Banks referred to Huawei kit on “intelligence networks”, which is a totally different scenario to Vodafone or EE upgrading their networks, and won’t affect intelligence sharing with the UK nor (as far as I know) anywhere. Conclusion: Banks – a Congressman – is playing his part in a show-fight for Stuttley’s benefit.
Banks let slip another nugget when he told us US provider Qualcomm is close to being able to deliver 5G kit, seemingly supporting the hypothesis that the Huawei fuss was all protectionism – delay 5G while US tech plays catchup. But it seemed quite a contrived suggestion, not least because he could have mentioned western companies Nokia and Ericsson that already compete with Huawei in the market. So perhaps that was also a decoy from the alternative hypothesis in the linked article?
My best guess now is this story will go on, and our telcos will find ways to work within the rules with limited disruption. I hope so: there’s a lot waiting on 5G, and though most of it will turn out to be toys and dross, that’s a phase we’ll need to go through on the way to a more usefully-connected world.
And in a couple of years, maybe we’ll see some high-media-profile security incident attributed to Huawei kit.
In other news today, Cisco (the longstanding #1 US networking giant) published an advisory: their webex conferencing system has been wide open to an unauthorised participant. A truly severe security risk if you thought your meeting was private!
 A very limited announcement: a much more limited go-ahead than given by the May government, let alone the widespread use of Huawei kit in 4G networks before it all got politicised.
 As in one B Stuttley Johnson, for anyone who doesn’t get the reference.
Is it just me, or is it becoming ever harder to communicate with officialdom? That is, both officialdom as in government services, and private-sector service providers such as utilities?
My house move has thrown up several examples, ranging from the painless to the deeply frustrating (though none so Kafkaesque as Virgin Media). Time to record a few cases.
Good: National Government. The process to get on the electoral register was updated between the 2005 and 2010 elections, and now works well. Registering at my new address was quick and painless – though probably (still) wide open to fraud.
Painful: Local Government. Signing off from Plymouth was painless, but West Devon has got much worse since I was previously here. Specifically, their website is now dysfunctional and won’t work without severely compromising one’s own security. I can sign up, but attempting to log in just dumps me at a third-party site that appears to be an identity service provider – but I have no way of verifying that, nor anything I can do even if I do decide to trust them!
So when they demand Council Tax, I can’t log in to set up payment. And there’s no contact information for council tax: their “contact us” offers a bunch of specific services, but no catch-all to contact them on a matter not listed, like how to pay them! It took two visits to their office in person and a letter written to them on paper to sort that.
Still worse was recycling. My request for the relevant recycling bins was submitted several times online and once in person at their offices, but fell into a black hole. Eventually (on a friend’s suggestion) I wrote to my elected councilors, who told the council jobsworths to do their job, whereupon the boxes were finally – three months from my first request – forthcoming.
Amongst utilities, Southwest Water was relatively painless. My first attempt failed on some website idiocy, but that was when my ‘net connection was down to 2G so it was a cup-of-coffee delay as it insisted on my changing “7” to “07” (or something) in a Date field. Returning a second time when it was back up to 4G, it still exhibited idiocy, but at least worked to the point of letting me notify them of my move and submit meter readings. Best of all, no need to change my existing direct debit just because it’s a different address.
At my previous address I had gas and electricity from SSE. Notifying them of my move was painless, and in retrospect I should have accepted their (automatic) offer to supply the new address. But I assumed I could sort that later.
Looking at the Western Power Distribution website, I found the incumbent supplier for my house is EDF. I was a happy customer of EDF from 2005 to 2013 (i.e. my entire time at the address I lived longer than anywhere else), and expected no problem. But it turned out to be another epic story, and one that merits a separate post that’ll make better reading than this TLDR. Suffice it for to say that today I’ve decided to give up the struggle and pay an incorrect bill, just to draw a line under it and move on with another provider.
One more minor epic was my internet connection. On finding that my 4G connection only half-works from here, I signed up for FTTC with Andrews and Arnold, with a view to a longer-term project of bringing some stuff in-house from the Cloud. Due to various issues, some of them genuinely outside the control of either A&A or Openreach, it was three visits over more than a month, and something of a battle, from when I should have had my connection to when it actually went live. Disappointed with the poor communication from A&A over much of that time.
Finally a good news story. Having blown my money on a house, I no longer have £20k cash to keep in a Santander 123 account. At £5/month charge, it could even end up costing me money with smaller balances! After a bit of online research, I opened a new account with Starling Bank, and after verifying that it worked I instructed them to transfer my Santander account. That ran genuinely smoothly, with not just my money but also payees and references moved automatically. Even Santander were polite about it, with no annoying “Customer Retention” crap when they wrote to confirm the closure.
I was motivated to write this when I saw a reference to our prime minister’s onanism in an online forum. He threw the press that word, and successfully distracted them – and it seems others – from discussing real issues. In other words, a classic dead cat.
It is now well-known that Boris is the master of the dead cat. He’s not the first, but we didn’t use the phrase when (for example) Blair used them, and in some ways he’s taken it to a new level. We need a word for it.
We have a kind-of precedent in his predecessor Cameron’s necroporcophilia. And now the onanism reference tells us Boris doesn’t merely like a dead cat, but takes gratification in it. So we should speak of him as our necrofeliphiliac prime minister. But that word seems ugly and confusing. I propose contracting it to necrofeliac, or the root necrofelia.
Can I claim the coinage? I guess a quick google will tell me if someone’s already coined it. Dammit, either way the fact I’m talking about it tells us it’s homological.
I’ve been meaning to have a good rant about this ever since Private Eye surpassed itself with that utterly brilliant headline The Ego has Landed in its Loon Landing Edition, blending the two topical stories of the ascent of Boris and the moon landing anniversary.
Not so long ago I thought May making him Foreign Secretary was a stroke of genius: surely the national embarrassment of so many idiocies would save us from seeing him as the next Prime Minister. The stark revelation of that classic public school trope, the Bully and Coward, certainly cured me of what remained of my one-time admiration for him. But I was wrong: he (like Flashman) has momentum, and Boris’s Momentum is a lot more powerful than Corbyn’s, so it can purge its party of all opposition.
So what’s he doing now? Apart from threatening us with national perdition while waving a Magic Money Tree that would shame Labour’s wildest promises? I think the whole key to it is, provoke the opposition into making itself look bad. And not just the opposition: there’s the media, the judiciary. Either you’re with us or you’re part of a great conspiracy. With his media background, not as reporter (where an effort to tell the truth would be expected) but as a successful columnist, he knows how to pull the strings of both the media and of the public. Or rather, in the latter case, his tribe.
Thus on brexit, keep them guessing. He has to request an extension, what will he do? If the EU see nothing coherent in UK politics – no plan that a sufficiently-united opposition might conceivably pursue – why would they agree to prolonging the agony? And who are the opposition? Two Labour parties that hate each other, Libdems who won’t go near Corbyn, and a handful of others including Tory rebels who. Shouldn’t be too hard to keep them from presenting a credible alternative. The Scots Nats valiantly try a constructive proposition (Corbyn on a very short leash), but even that fails to gain traction.
Meanwhile Boris presents himself as a tribal leader, shorn of any pretence of admitting contrary voices such as those of other tribes in ‘his’ nation. He’s seen that succeed elsewhere, albeit usually with ugly consequences (including Northern Ireland – the part of the UK with a strongly tribal recent history). He’s an obvious master of the dead cat, not least in the stories about sexual misdemeanours that play right into his hands by sending the Chattering Classes into a frenzy while being insufficiently serious for normal people to care. I thought (and nearly blogged) about the Carrie row during the leadership contest, which looked staged to provoke excess outrage and collect a sympathy vote. A few of these stories, and even if the next one were were a credible accusation of actual rape, who would believe it after so much fuss?
On the subject of brexit, the differing opposition attitudes are interesting but unhelpful. Libdems seek a mandate to stop it outright, but they’re too far from a ‘main party’ for that to be realistic. Corbyn presents a coherent plan – to do what Cameron should have done in the first place and present a referendum on an actual plan rather than a blank slate – but his party won’t unite and the media tell us it’s unclear. Looks like too little, too late. And – crucially – while they’re all panicking about WTF Boris might do (possibly in defiance of the law), they’re not uniting around a coherent plan, and what the world sees is headless chickens.
A grand narrative of a PM implementing the “will of the people” against a great conspiracy (conveniently forgetting of course that his predecessor would have delivered brexit if her own party hadn’t voted it down). These past few weeks have given me an insight into how the world got “Democratic Peoples Republic“s: someone pursued an agenda with a genuine belief that it was the “will of the people”, and gradually dispensed with all opposition that comes from democratic checks-and-balances.
As for the latest row over language? There’s another brilliant dead cat. The “surrender act” is nasty, but Labour hasn’t got a leg to stand on in criticising it: that kind of language has been their own bread-and-butter for longer than I can remember. On the other hand – and what finally provoked me into a rant about it, Boris’s rabble-rousing conference speech to his acolytes was seriously scary. If we put aside alarming precedents from within living memory, it was at the very least a conscious effort to cast his opponents as turbulent priests: serious intimidation.
Indeed, one striking aspect of politics today is how the Tories have taken on Labour’s mantle. In my youth it was Thatcher who talked mostly sense while Labour pursued tribal dogma in the name of socialism; now it’s Boris’s fanatics who are putting quasi-religious dogma ahead of the country’s interests in the name of ‘the people’. That’s deeper than just stealing Labour’s spending mantle to try and crowd them out, or provoke them to yet-more-loony promises.
What will happen at halloween? If I could get instant information, I’d be watching the hedge funds’ bets. Especially those that help bankroll Boris and the Party, or are controlled by or closely connected to government insiders like Rees-Mogg and Leadsom. They remember how Soros made gazillions betting against Blighty in 1992, but perhaps conveniently overlook the fact that he at least wasn’t doing so as a government insider.
With the controversy over the US and its allies adopting Huawei kit generating more heat than light, I think perhaps it’s time to don my mathematician’s hat and take a look at what could and couldn’t really be at stake here. Who could be spying on us, and how?
Much of the commentary on this is on the level of legislating the value of pi. That is to say, a fundamental conflict with basic laws of nature. At the heart of this is Trump’s ranting about China spying on us: the idea that a 5g router (or any other infrastructure component) could spy on his intelligence services’ communications is on the level of worrying about catching cold from reading my blog because I sneezed while writing it.
At least, a router acting on its own. A router in collaboration with other agents could plausibly be a different story, but more on that later.
To set the scene, I can recommend Sky’s historical perspective: Huawei’s 5G network could be used for spying – while the West is asleep at the wheel. This looks back to the era of British domination of the world’s communications infrastructure, and how we successfully used that to eavesdrop German wartime communications. It also traces the British company involved, which was bought by Vodafone in 2012.
Taking his lesson from history, Sky’s correspondent concludes that if the Brits and the Americans could do it (the latter a longstanding conspiracy theory more recently supported by the Snowden leaks), then so could the Chinese. Of Huawei (a private company), he says:
[founder] Ren Zhengfei … has said his firm does not spy for China, and that he would not help China spy on someone even if required by Chinese law.
Personally, I’m inclined to believe him.
But it may also be a promise he is unable to keep, even if he wants to. The state comes before everything.
which might just be plausible, with the proviso that it would risk destroying China’s world-leading company and a powerhouse of its economy.
But the historical analogy misses one crucial difference in the modern world. Modern encryption. Maths that emerged (despite the US government’s strenuous efforts to suppress it) around the 1980s, and continues to evolve, while also being routinely used online, ensures that traffic passing through Huawei-supplied infrastructure carries exactly zero information of the kind historically used to decrypt cyphers, such as (famously) the Enigma. Encryption absolutely defeats the prospect of China doing what Britain and America did. And – particularly since Snowden – encryption is increasingly widely deployed, even for data whose security is of very little concern, such as a blog at wordpress.org.
Unless of course the encryption is compromised elsewhere. The spy in your ‘puter or ‘phone. Or the fake certificate that enables an imposter to impersonate a trusted website or correspondent. These are real dangers, but none of them is under Huawei’s (let alone the Chinese government’s) control or influence.
Looking at it another way, there’s a very good reason your online banking uses HTTPS – the encrypted version of HTTP. It’s what protects you from criminals listening in and stealing your data, and gaining access to your account. The provenance of the network infrastructure is irrelevant: the risk you need to protect against is that there is any compromised component between you and your bank. Which is exactly what encryption does.
So why is the US government attacking Huawei so vigorously, not merely banning its use there but also threatening its allies with sanctions? I can see two plausible explanations:
- Pure protectionism. Against the first major Chinese technology company to be not merely competitive with but significantly ahead of its Western competitors in a field. And against the competitive threat of 5G rollout giving Europe and Asia a big edge over the US.
- The US intelligence agencies’ own spying on us.
OK, having mooted (2), it’s time to return to my earlier remark about the possibility of a router collaborating with another agent in spying with us. The spy in your ‘puter or ‘phone. There’s nothing new about malware (viruses, etc) that spy on you: for example, they might seek to log keypresses to steal your passwords (this is why financial institutions routinely make you enter some part of your credentials using mouse and menus rather than from the keyboard – it makes it much harder for malware to capture them). Or alternatively, an application (like a mailer, web browser, video/audio communication software, etc) encrypts but inserts the spy’s key alongside the legitimate users’ keys: this is essentially what the Australian government legislated for to spy on its own citizens.
But such malware, even when installed successfully and without your knowledge, has a problem of its own. How to “phone home” its information without being detected? If it makes an IP connection to a machine controlled by the attacker, that becomes obviously suspicious to a range of tools in a techie’s toolkit. Or for non-techie users, your antivirus software (unless that is itself a spy). So it’ll have a pretty limited lifetime before it gets busted. Alternatively, if it ‘phones home’ low-level data without IP information (that’ll look like random line noise to IP tools if they notice it at all), the network’s routers have nowhere to send it, and will just drop it.
This smuggling of illicit or compromised data to a clandestine listener is where a malicious router might conceivably play a role. But for that to happen, the attacker needs a primary agent: that spy in your ‘puter or ‘phone. If anyone’s intelligence service has spyware from a hostile power, they have an altogether more serious problem than a router that’ll carry or even clone its data.
And who could install that spy? Answer: the producers of your hardware or software. Companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook have software installed on most ‘puters and ‘phones. Some of that is P2P communications software like Microsoft’s skype or Facebook’s whatsapp, that should be prime vehicles for Aussie-style targeted espionage. If anyone is in a position to spy on us and could benefit from the cooperation of routers to remain undetected, it’s the government who could lean on those companies to do its bidding. I’m sure the companies aren’t happy about it, but as the Sky journalist said of Huawei, “it may also be a promise he is unable to keep, even if he wants to. The state comes before everything”.
China’s presence in any of those markets is a tiny fraction of what the US has. Could it be that the NSA made Huawei an offer they couldn’t refuse, but they did refuse and the US reaction is the penalty for that? It’s not totally far-fetched: there’s precedent with the US government’s treatment of Kaspersky.
And it would certainly be consistent with the US government’s high-pressure bullying of its allies. The alternative explanation to pure protectionism is that they don’t want us to install equipment without NSA spyware! The current disinformation campaign reminds me of nothing so much as Bush&Blair’s efforts to discredit Hans Blix’s team ahead of the Iraq invasion.
 I’m inclined to believe the Snowden leaks. But I’m well aware that anything that looks like Intelligence information might also be disinformation, and my inclination to believe it would then hint at disinformation targeted at people like me. So I’ll avoid rash assumptions one way or t’other. Snowden’s leaks support a conspiracy theory, but don’t prove it.