Category Archives: Blog

Measles: A dangerous illness, by Roald Dahl

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything. “Are you feeling all right?” I asked her. “I feel all sleepy, ” she said. In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead. The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her. That was twenty-four years ago in 1962, but even now, if a child with measles happens to develop the same deadly reaction from measles as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help her. On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunised against measles. I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered. Today a good and safe vaccine is available to every family and all you have to do is to ask your doctor to administer it. It is not yet generally accepted that measles can be a dangerous illness. Believe me, it is. In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk. In America, where measles immunisation is compulsory, measles like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out. Here in Britain, because so many parents refuse, either out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear, to allow their children to be immunised, we still have a hundred thousand cases of measles every year. Out of those, more than 10,000 will suffer side effects of one kind or another. At least 10,000 will develop ear or chest infections. About 20 will die. LET THAT SINK IN. Every year around 20 children will die in Britain from measles. So what about the risks that your children will run from being immunised? They are almost non-existent. Listen to this. In a district of around 300,000 people, there will be only one child every 250 years who will develop serious side effects from measles immunisation! That is about a million to one chance. I should think there would be more chance of your child choking to death on a chocolate bar than of becoming seriously ill from a measles immunisation. So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised. The ideal time to have it done is at 13 months, but it is never too late. All school-children who have not yet had a measles immunisation should beg their parents to arrange for them to have one as soon as possible. Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach. That was when she was still alive. The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles. You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books. And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

Hat-tip to Peter Bowditch of

A Disproportionate Influence

A few months back I wrote to Alok Sharma my Member of Parliament suggesting that it was about time the UK declared itself a secular democracy and disassociated state from church. I realised that for a Conservative MP with even the most ambivalent views on religion, this was like asking Usain Bolt to cut off one of his feet in the interests of fair play.

Prompting me to write was the news during May 2012 that Norway had taken the first steps toward disestablishment, abolishing the Lutheran Church of Norway, renaming it ‘The People’s Church’ and thenceforth having no official state religion. The state will continue to collect a church tax and the ‘church office’ in the Norwegian government will remain: taxes collected will be distributed proportionally to religious and humanist groups and the state will no longer require its employees to be members of the church, nor will it appoint clergy and there will be no ‘national religion’.

Although not the complete divorce Norwegian secularists were asking for, it is a step in the right direction that is based on more than sentiment. Data from 2009 and 2010 suggest that only 2% attend church regularly in Norway and a 2002 study done by Gustafsson and Pettersson revealed that 72 percent of Norwegians “do not believe in a personal God”. This data did not sit comfortably with the fact that 79 percent of Norwegians are members of the church by default, tradition dictating that citizens became members on baptism, not exactly an age where a person has much choice. Even in such an enlightened country as Norway, it is surprising that such an overwhelming level of apathy and foot-voting had to take place before the government recognised how inappropriate it was for the state to back any particular confession. A stark reminder of how embedded and mulish religious belief can be, even in the face of such public indifference.

The Norwegian data is not dissimilar to the latest information we have here in the UK where less than 5 percent of the population now attend the ‘official’ Church of England. This dwindling band of adherents comprise slightly more than half (9%) of the population who do attend some kind of church, mosque or temple on a regular basis. A 2005 poll revealed that more than 60 percent of us either have no belief in any kind of supernatural being or no belief in the god served up to us by the major monotheisms. This does beg the question that if we are to maintain an official religion, shouldn’t it be the one that has the most attendance to its places of worship? Trends suggest that the ‘official religion’ should soon switch to Islam with Imams appointed by government and residing in the House of Lords. How more risible is that idea than the one which maintains the existing status quo?

Over the past few weeks, events have continued to pile up yet more evidence of religious indifference and disproportionate influence in the UK. In rough chronological order we have the statement by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland that he is breaking off communication with the Scottish government over the issue of gay marriage. Oh dear! Throwing his toys out of the pram demonstrates little dignity for the spiritual leader of 15.9 percent of the Scottish population, less than a third of who attend the church regularly. These data include a boost given by some 50,000 Polish Catholics who have become resident since 2002. In this respect, Scottish Catholicism is akin to English Premier League football in its reliance on foreign players. Even this influx, driven by the free market economy only represents a small fraction of the Scottish population and one wonders what fraction of those really care whether or not the church should bless two people who want to make a commitment to each other.

No doubt the Scottish Parliament has debated gay marriage at length and in its proper context, taking into account the feelings of the various religious denominations even though in sum they represent a minority of the population. Given that the majority have either no belief or see the religious viewpoint as a non-issue, one hopes that their feelings on the matter would hold more sway. No clergy of any religious organisation would be required by law to perform a marriage ceremony for a gay couple, this will remain as it should be, a matter of conscience for the person being asked to consecrate a relationship between two other human beings. So where, Cardinal O’Brien is the problem? The elected house in Edinburgh serves the population as a whole, so why try to impose your will on them even if your regular attendees agree with your doctrine on gay marriage? They are after all a small minority. His childish disengagement from the debate is perhaps a good thing, heaven forbid that a religious leader should influence a politician from a constituency containing a high proportion of voters with a Catholic persuasion.

Most sadly, this month saw the death of Tony Nicklinson, the heroic and articulate sufferer of locked-in syndrome following a stroke in 2005. The previous week saw the High Court rule against Mr. Nicklinson’s case to allow doctors to end his life without falling foul of the law themselves. Despite making an argument that appealed to the heart as well as the head, the highest court in the land declared; “It is not for the court to decide whether the law about assisted dying should be changed and, if so, what safeguards should be put in place. ..Under our system of government these are matters for Parliament to decide.” The response led to Mr. Nicklinson losing the will to carry on and he literally starved himself to death, bringing on pneumonia with complications. The High Court ruling was predictable but no doubt the issue of ‘assisted dying’ will go around and around the political system with the religious element having a disproportionate influence in a ‘no change’ outcome.  This despite the fact that the 26th report of the British Social Attitudes Survey published in 2010, showed that 71% of religious people and 92% non-religious (82% in total) believe that a doctor should be allowed to end the life of a patient with an incurable disease if that were the wish of the patient.

As the month of August 2012 progressed we learned of the demise of the Welsh Chapel, where an average of one a week of these blockish, stoic buildings has been forced to close over the past few years for lack of attendance and of course funds. Non-conformist religious worship had been a major part of Welsh culture during the 19th and for most of the 20th centuries, with some 75 percent of people attending denominations such as Baptist, Unitarian, Presbytarian and Methodist as recoded in 1904#. The BBC TV report on the plight of Welsh Chapels mentioned church attendances lower than the UK as a whole. This is interesting considering that Wales has perhaps the most ‘competitive’ market for religion in the UK, fragmented between many Christian denominations of roughly equal strength (or should that be weakness?) along with Muslim and Jewish populations.

So, what reply did I receive to my ‘tongue-in-cheeky’ letter? Well it was certainly detailed and personal Mr. Sharma assured me, not the party line. In this and subsequent correspondence my impression is that Mr. Sharma is an earnest, hard-working representative of his constituency and my sense is that I would like him if I met him. His reply on this issue however comprised the usual sugary statements on multiculturalism and tolerance and of course pointing out that our political system is inextricably linked with Christianity, which he says; “…continues to play an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation, especially given the fact that we have an Established Church (yes capital letters!), governed by The Queen.” Well, if all else fails, we all love The Queen, don’t we!? Perhaps the Church of England being ‘The Tory Party at Prayer’ is not the outmoded caricature we thought. Perchance it really is a parody of engagement during those ‘hatched, matched and dispatched’ moments in life.

In fear of those who govern us drifting even further from reality, we can only hope that at some point in the future they will get beyond such shallow responses and debate the issue of church and state fully. Could it be that disestablishing the church and continuing with The House of Hanover to supply the Head of State is not as eccentric and batty as having been landed with it in the first place? This would surely not be a constitutional impossibility. Who knows, it may even strengthen and legitimise both institutions. Mr. Sharma goes on to express his belief that; “…all faith communities do a great deal to inspire community cohesion in their local communities” and that the various religious traditions, “ to do good for their wider communities”. Resorting to the intangible is a fair cop-out I suppose considering the man is a decent hard-working public servant. He failed to address the hard data I provided him with on religious belief, observance and the continuing decline of both. However you look at it there does seem to be an enormous blind spot on the part of government to the disproportionate influence of religion in setting policy.

In the spirit of healthy debate I replied that if the British electorate were asked, they would most likely want to keep a constitutional monarchy but get religion out of politics, protect freedom of religious practice, treat all religions equally and let them be self-funding. This is the way of a modern, secular democracy. This is what we are. At some point in the future, government will surely catch up with this fact and at least debate the issue.

A Skeptic’s Guide to Science and Health Reporting

I’m a little late to this but I think it’s worth sharing. The Science Media Centre was asked by the Leveson Inquiry to come up with some Guidelines for Science and Media Reporting, and here is their submission:

The following guidelines, drawn up in consultation with scientists, science reporters, editors and sub editors, are intended for use by newsrooms to ensure that the reporting of science and health stories is balanced and accurate, They are not intended as a prescriptive checklist and of course shorter articles or NIBs will not be able to cover every point, Above and beyond specific guidelines, familiarity with the technicafities and common pitfalls in science and health reporting is invaluable and every newsroom should aim to employ specialist science and health correspondents, Wherever possible the advice and skills of these specialists should be sought and respected on major, relevant stories; the guidelines below will be especially useful for editors and general reporters who are less familiar with how science works,

  • State the source of the story – e.g. interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc. – ideally with enough information for readers to look it up or a web link.
  • Specify the size and nature of the study – e.g. who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations.
  • When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other.
  • Give a sense of the stage of the research – e.g. cells in a laboratory or trials in humans – and a realistic time-frame for any new treatment or technology.
  • On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper – i.e. if ’cupcakes double cancer risk’ state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes.
  • Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence – e.g. does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored.
  • If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies.
  • Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don’t suggest health advice if none has been offered.
  • Remember patients” don’t call something a ’cure’ that is not a cure.
  • Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.

It strikes me that these guidelines are as useful to us consumers of the news as to its writers. If a health story in your newspaper doesn’t tick all of these boxes, it might be best to view the claims with some scepticism.

(Hat-tip to the estimable David Spiegelhalter)


I had a email from the organisers of Questival. It sounds like a lot of fun and I wish I was able to go myself.

Anyway, here is their press release.

Questival is THE Festival for Young Freethinkers this Summer

Young freethinkers are causing a stir this summer at Questival, the biggest camp for atheist youth in the UK. Started 3 years ago as an alternative to religious summer camps, Questival is a mentally and physically active weekend for young adults with a naturalistic worldview. It will be held between 3rd – 5th August near Stratford-upon-Avon with the aim of entertaining, inspiring and blowing away the myth that atheists are all cantankerous old men!

Confirmed events include the Big Questival Challenge; Alom Shaha, author of “The Young Atheist’s Handbook”, talking about what it means to be a young non-believer; a mysterious and magical ghost cruise; Skeptical podcaster-reporters, the Pod Delusion LIVE (and in the field) with more speakers workshops, music, comedy to be announced!

Andrew West, Questival Coordinator, said: “Questival 2011 was such a success that we were being asked about this year’s event before we’d left the campsite,” adding, “Questival is the one time per year that skeptics, naturalists, rationalists and humanists from all over the country get to spend a weekend enjoying each other’s company while being entertained, enlightened and enchanted.”

Questival is organised by the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Student Societies (AHS). President Jenny Bartle said: “Providing a secular alternative to religious summer camps helps to build a community for young people who are interested in non-religious adventures.”

BSS Visit to Culham Centre for Fusion Energy

Attention geeks! I think you’re going to like this.

A little while ago at Reading Skeptics In The Pub I met a chap with quite possibly the best opening line I’ve ever heard: “Hi, I’m Nick. I’m sometimes in charge of the hottest place in the universe.”

Nick Balshaw works at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) near Abingdon, where he is Diagnostic Engineering Group Leader for the Joint European Torus (JET), the world’s largest and most powerful tokamak. And quite wonderfully, Nick has offered to give some of us skeptics a tour of his workplace.

So we have a reservation for a small group to visit on Wednesday 14 November, to see the JET and MAST fusion experiments and to meet some of the scientists and engineers. This tour starts at 18:30 and finishes around 21:30 and it totally free, but as the CCFE website states:

  • The tours are not suitable for children below the age of 14
  • A significant amount of walking is involved during the tours
  • People with pacemakers or other medical implants will not be able to access certain areas.

There are only 8 spaces left on this visit so if you want to come along, don’t tarry. Fill in your details below, I’ll be in touch to confirm your place on the trip and then we can sort out car-sharing and such details nearer the time.

Don’t fret too much if you don’t make the cut. CCFE hold public open evenings most months so you may get another chance if you contact them directly, but beware that these evenings are fully booked many months in advance.

UPDATE (0900, 22/7/012) : Wow, what a great response! Only 1 place remaining now.

UPDATE (1204, 22/7/012) : That’s it, all places taken. Apologies to those who missed out.

Native Nutrition Nonsense

everything on the Earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission. This is the Indian theory of existence.

If I’d been born a hundred years ago I’d probably have thought this ‘Red Indian’ an inferior, less evolved, human being than white Europeans (and especially British) like me. I would also have regarded working class people as inferior, and upper class people as superior to middle-class me.

Growing up in the late 20th century I came across reverse snobbery: the idea that working class people are more authentically human than us effete middle classes. And these days there’s a vein of inverse racism that credits Native Americans like Ms Quintasket – and others of what my grandparents would have regarded as Inferior Races – with Superior Wisdom to ours.

And it’s just as much bollocks as straightforward racism and class prejudice.

There is, no doubt, a lot that Christal knew about the world she lived in that I don’t, and wouldn’t have if I were alive when she was. But there is a lot that she – and my compatriots 100 years ago – didn’t know, that we do now.

Thanks in no small measure to Richard Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene” far more of us now know what Darwin, Wallace and others were realising a few decades before Christal Quintasket was born: that the purpose of every living thing on the earth is to reproduce offspring bearing its genes as widely and vigorously as possible. For most plants an important part of staying alive and reproducing is not to get eaten by animals, and one way to do this is to poison those that try. To this end plants have evolved a variety of toxins which target the animals that would have them for lunch, according to their predators’ particular biochemistries.

Animals differ biologically and a substance toxic to one particular predator may have no effect on others; it may even be beneficial to some, but as long as it doesn’t turn the beneficiary into a predator there’s no reason for the plant to have evolved out such side-effects. So we find there are plants that produce substances we have found to be medicinal (not to mention recreational!) to us. Nowadays we understand that this is just a quirk of nature but people would once have assumed that such benefits must be the result of divine intention. In our own culture the Bible has God telling His people that He has given them “every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit“. Native Americans of Ms Quintasket’s time probably had no more clue that plants’ medicinal benefits were simply a happy accident of nature than most of their European contemporaries and would have put them down to similar deist or theist benevolence. Ascribing Superior Wisdom to her words because she was a Native American is as racist as ascribing inferior intelligence to her for the same reason. She was just a human being, genetically practically indistinguishable from you and me. She was part of a culture different from ours and lived at a time when we didn’t know much about how life on our planet came about and evolves. And her utterances on medicine and healing are as valid today as my grandmother’s were.

Jeffrey Rowland's 'Overcompensating'

Hell Fires – Ramblings on Fossil fuels, ‘Old Nick’ and bacon sandwiches.

While listening to Don McLean’s iconic hit ‘American Pie’, a lyric jumped from the 1970’s into my 21st century ear, namely ‘Fire is the devil’s only friend’. At the time I was driving home toward Reading and could see the wind turbine beside the M4, churning around in the air, generating electrical power from this zero-cost fuel whilst burning nothing in the process. My thoughts lingered on McLean’s words as I remembered a short story I read at around the time he was writing his hit song.

‘Hell Fire’ by Isaac Asimov was published in May 1956, and appeared in a collection of Science Fiction short stories titled ‘Earth Is Room Enough’. The story tells of the testing of a new technique of high speed photography, fast enough to capture an atomic explosion no less. The story was written before the nuclear test ban treaty when nations were testing their bombs by detonating them above ground in remote places. So, the bomb is detonated and the new hi-tech cameras record the event while the scientists rush back to a viewing room to look at the results. Immediately following the blinding flash of detonation, the film progressed to show a face forming in the picture. As the explosion rushes outward the face reveals itself to be Satan himself! The devil laughing, no doubt delighted that mankind has made for him such a ‘friendly’ fire.

So, we have a song and a short story where the main character is universally recognisable. ‘Old Nick’ to euphemise him is an essential supporting actor in the monotheistic religions and makes appearances in various guises in traditions that pre-date even those. But who or what exactly are we talking about? The dualist concept of good and evil, represented by their respective protagonists God and the Devil is ingrained in the human experience at so many levels. For religious people, these distinctions animate their lives and for Christians, the idea of sin and redemption is the central tenet of their faith.

Richard Dawkins introduced us to the concept of ‘memes’, ideas that get taken up by the human mind and carried from person to person down the generations. Memes propagate through art, music and language and like genes, adapt and mutate, the most adaptive surviving while the less fit are banished to the sidelines or die out. While the idea of the devil is as vigorous as ever in the minds of human beings, others hold sway only on the margins of society. An example of a marginalised meme is the idea of witchcraft. The ‘witch craze’ swept through Europe in the 16th century in an age when most people believed in witches and expected the authorities, religious and secular to punish these perceived doers of evil deeds. By the late 17th century the idea had lost its grip on the elites as science and reason began to expose such superstitious practices. The courts took less and less interest in trying to prosecute allegations of witchcraft, culminating in Parliament passing the Witchcraft Act in 1735. This act recognised witchcraft as an ‘impossible crime’ and was designed to prosecute claimants to such powers as con artists.

While dear old witchcraft has been banished to the fringes, the idea of the devil is as strong and universal as ever, continuing to appear under a plethora of names such as Satan, Lucifer, Iblis, Hades, and Yen-Lo-Wang. The last in that list being the Chinese ruler of Hell. These were just a sample of about one hundred names served up by Wikipedia for our subterranean nemesis if you Google him. As a non believer in things supernatural, I put the devil in the same category as witchcraft, demons, ghosts, fairies at the bottom of my garden and of course God, the big daddy of all memes.

Human ingenuity has thrown up so many ideas, products, processes and belief systems that are both good and bad depending on where you are in time and place. Democracy seems on balance to be a good thing but is not universally accepted as such, along with freedom of speech, votes for women, the bicycle, Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ and bacon sandwiches (unless you happen to be Muslim or Jewish of course). Things that are now considered by most people to be bad ideas include the owning of slaves, child labour, smoking tobacco and a double whopper burger with cheese and extra fries. Interesting that all of these things are still going on somewhere in the world and of course the last two are perfectly legal and available almost everywhere. Some ‘bad ideas’ though do offer benefits, both economic and hedonistic, although these can be short term and opinions tend to change with evidence and experience. And as for fire, the first technology game changer, is it a good or bad thing? If it really is the ‘devil’s only friend’, haven’t we set ourselves up for a fall by figuring out how to make it in the first place?

With another glance to the wind turbine it occurred to me that our well being and comfort depends almost entirely on burning things in one way or another. We started off burning wood, then coal, oil in its various forms and gas. Even nuclear power consumes the uranium fuel as the atoms are ripped apart in the process of fission, just another type of burning. Even if your ‘devil’ is a metaphorical one, wouldn’t he be having a little laugh every time we burn one of the aforementioned fuels, depleting a finite natural resource and as we now know, degrading the atmosphere to the detriment of all life? Every year, humanity burns the equivalent of a few million years of carbonised life, laid down back in the time of the dinosaurs. In effect we burn dead dinosaurs, or at least the trees and plants that grew when those giant beasts roamed the earth.

There appears to be a rising tide of climate change deniers, politicians, journalists and business leaders who rubbish the investments made in wind farms, solar power and other forms of producing energy that does not involve ‘burning stuff’. This must be making our imaginary Satan laugh all the way to his bank of souls as he foresees yet further death and destruction from rising sea levels, denuded resources and ruined crops. The point of my disparate ramblings is that in an irrational world, full of fact-denying shapers of public opinion, we need all the allies we can muster, even irrational ones like ‘Old Nick’. Mr. Asimov’s brilliant allegory showed the madness of testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, clearly a ‘bad idea’. We can only work towards a world where the burning of fossil fuels is seen in a similar light. Whether you believe in Satan or his opposite number ‘upstairs’ or not, nature’s experiment with a more developed pre-frontal cortex will come to a sticky end if we fail to figure out how to enjoy the benefits of its creativity without pandering to the Devil’s only friend.

David Parker

Wokingham primary schools promoting New Age guff?

I was a little surprised yesterday to receive a promotional flyer for some “NLP4Parents” Neuro-Liguistic Programming workshops soon to be held in and around Wokingham. It came as an attachment to this week’s email newsletter from my child’s primary school, apparently at the request of Wokingham Borough Council.

I’m no psychologist but I’ve been aware for some time of the dim view that psychologists and neuroscientists have of NLP. It appears to be wholly unsupported by the scientific evidence or modern psychological theories, and the fact that it appears to be favoured by proponents of even wackier New Age nonsense should ring alarm bells.

I won’t say more as it’s not my field, but this post by neurologist Steven Novella is well work a read.

I would rather the school and Wokingham BC took no part in promoting such pseudo-science. I have emailed the school asking who at Wokingham BC asked the school to distribute this material. I will post again when I have found out more.

Send The Geek Manifesto to Every MP

Our guest speaker at the next Reading Skeptics In The Pub is Mark Henderson, former science editor at the Times and now the Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust.

Mark’s new book, The Geek Manifesto, is a call to arms for science geeks to get political and demand evidence-based policy. It has been getting great reviews and has sparked some interesting discussion on the aims of skepticism (see Tessa Kendall’s response to Nick Cohen), and I am looking forward to having some rare free time this coming weekend to finish reading it.

I was rather taken by this terrific idea by Dave Watts :

I will put a copy of the Geek Manifesto on every MP’s desk but only if 649 other people will help buy the books.

What a brilliant way to get the geek message across! I learned yesterday that if we can get 500 pledges then Mark’s publishers will donate the final 150 books, and we are well over the 100 mark already.

And so I urge you all, buy The Geek Manifestobuy a copy for your MP, and of course, come and hear Mark Henderson himself at Reading Skeptics In The Pub, at 7:30pm on Thursday 21st June.

Reading Skeptics In The Pub is a regular series of talks and lectures by prominent writers and thinkers, organised by Berkshire Skeptics Society. There is no need to book and admission is free, although we do invite donations to cover our expenses. Meetings are usually at 7:30pm on the third Thursday of each month at Copa, but arrangements do vary so please check the website.

UPDATE (31/5/12) : Mark posted on this blog yesterday that his publishers, Transworld Books, will now match every pledge, reducing the target to just 325.

Why Government Surveillance of Internet Communications is Damaging to Society

I was kindly invited to post the script of my recent Pod Delusion segment which appeared on the show on 13/04/12 – here it is.

In the past weeks, you may have seen news about the proposed ‘CCDP’, the Communications Capabilities Development Programme – a scheme through which the Home Office is requesting increased powers of surveillance over people’s online and phone communications. It’s a news story I found myself, almost accidentally, at the heart of.

The case the Home Office makes is that, with the increase in new communication technologies, criminals and terrorists are getting ahead of the security services by being able to communicate online. Our laws currently prevent blanket logging of online communications so, for security services to track down these bad guys, they want new legislation brought in.

So far so good, you might say – no-one wants the bad guys to get away, let’s give the security guys the technology they need.

…but that’s where the problems start, because this isn’t only a debate about technology, this is also a debate about society.

and we’re working with ministers who have difficulties understanding that subtlety – remember the kneejerk reaction of wanting to turn Twitter off during last summer’s riots?

It also brings in one of the favourite topics of listeners to this show – Evidence-based policy making – we know when considering new policy we need to explore the wider issues:

What’s the evidence this solution will solve our problem?
What other solutions are possible?
What other effects will this policy have?
Could we, in attempting to solve one problem, bring about others that are far worse?

Consider phone calls. Without knowing which of the millions of people talking to each other at any one time might be criminals, security services feel they need to log every single call that’s made. There’s no way the people of this great nation are going to let security services record the content of their phone calls as a matter of routine, what they can get hold of is what’s called communications data – that’s the facts of your communication, things like who talked to whom, for how long, where the call was made from.

For many calls these data are already recorded by our telecoms companies, we expect them to do that as part of our billing process, and police can get hold of that data with an appropriate warrant. I should point out that many pay-as-you-go phones don’t get tracked in this way and, as yet, we’ve not seen what the new proposals are for dealing with those.

Now imagine extending the collection of these data for all the different ways we communicate online: Skype calls, email, webmail, social networking, posts on discussion boards, avatars chatting in online games – and you start to see the scale of what might be proposed. And remember, the suggestion is that all this communication data is collected, not after suspicion has been raised about an individual through criminal behaviour, but collected about everyone, all the time.

There are many technical problems with this – not just the sheer scale of processing and data storage that’s involved. A message sent to you via a web-based service gets served to your PC looking just like any other webpage. Internet security advisors and experienced people working within the telecoms companies tell me they cannot identify which pages are messages, or separate the communications data, without having to sample content… and content sampling is completely unacceptable.

But, even if content is not sampled, do we really want our every online interaction logged and stored for government reference? It’s been described as the equivalent of being followed by a deaf private detective – they may not be able to hear what you say, but they know everyone you met with, how long you spoke to them for, where you were when you met them. A personal profile can be built up of you, your issues and your interests, through your online interactions – these same interactions which it is proposed to hold on a database for reference on demand by the authorities.

There are a lot of red herrings in this news story to watch out for – we are promised that information won’t be held in a monolithic central database at GCHQ. That’s true because it will be held in dispersed databases belonging to the telecoms companies – I’m afraid our concerns about incompetent data protection, malicious usage and hacking are increased rather than put to rest by the multiplicity of storage locations.

and whilst the current proposal may promise such data will be held securely and only released with a warrant, how might that evolve under a different government 5 or 10 years down the line? Remember these will be commercial companies holding a detailed profile of you built up through all your social interactions. They have no business need to collect or hold these third-party data, they would be doing so only because instructed by government and it would be an extremely significant overhead to their business processes.

So questions also need to be asked about who pays for this programme if it is implemented… and you can bet, one way or the other, it will be us who, either through our taxes or direct payment to these companies, are paying for our own intimate personal information to be harvested and stored.

And for all the promises of database security, accessible only by warrants, in the past we’ve seen personal details of 7 million families receiving child benefit released through lost copies of data CDs and, more worryingly, the content of police records maliciously altered.

So, to return to our evidence-based policy-making: What other effects could this policy have?

We’re familiar with the “chilling effect” that our libel laws have on debate – this would have a “chilling effect” on communication and web use.

What about the isolated gay teenager who wants to post for support on an internet discussion board – but knows that communication is being logged for government purposes? Someone seeking advice when they feel a complaint has been mishandled by the police – but knows a profile of their interactions is being built up?

Might databases be used for ‘fishing’ purposes, searching for patterns that identify classes of people, even when they are not individually suspected of crimes? – the phrases ‘false positive’ and ‘guilt by association’ rather spring to mind. Muslim friends tell me they already worry about phone logging for these reasons.

If our problem is crime and terrorism, will this solution fix it? Of course not – we may end up catching a few of the more clueless ones, but any serious player will work with encryption which limits tracking, despite the vast quantity of money the Government intends to throw at this technology.

Crime and terrorism are social problems, human problems, not technical ones. Real solutions require us to tackle the root causes in society – lack of social cohesion, poor education, the need for better rehabilitation. In fact, the solution lies in more fearless, more open communication, not in less.

This is a political issue, but it is not a single party one. Julian Huppert has been leading the fight from the Lib Dem benches and I set Lib Dem policy against this programme at our National Conference a few weeks ago. But we’ve also seen members of other parties speaking out against the CCDP proposals too.

If this is something you feel strongly about and if you want to prevent this becoming law, you can raise political awareness. Write to your MP explaining the wider implications of what, to them, may seem a rather confusing technical topic. Sign the online petitions as well, but remember MPs take note of personal letters and especially personal visits, so drop into their surgery to tell them why this is wrong. There are links to further details of the CCDP proposals and of a public conference on the topic on 20th April on the Pod Delusion website.

The Communications Capabilities Development Programme is not about technology, it’s about society. I don’t want us to live in a society where the default assumption is that everyone is under suspicion, where all the communication records of every innocent citizen are kept, just in case they do something wrong.

Help me build a better society – lets stop the CCDP together.

This is Jenny Woods, for the Pod Delusion.