Move over Big Brother, Sister ELENA is here

On the 1st of January this year German employers became subject to a new legal requirement, one that has their own Data Protection Authorities, Trade Unions and Civil Rights groups appalled.

ELENA knows where you live.

From the beginning of 2010 every German employer must now submit detailed information on a monthly basis to the so-called ELENA database, ELENA is an acronym for Eleketronischer Entgeltnachweis which loosely translates to Electronic Payslip. This sounds innocent enough until you consider exactly what information employers are obliged to provide.

The information will cover every worker’s salary, all absenteeism and their participation in strike action whether legal or illegal. This data is to be submitted to a central hub and from 2012 it will be used to determine whether to pay out or refuse social benefits. Plans are in place to relieve employers of the necessity of printing paper-based pay statements for their employees and instead issuing each worker with a plastic “jobcard” again by 2012. This card would then need to be produced should the holder ever need to apply for benefits allowing for data retrieval to determine eligibility.

Peter Schaar, the German Information Commissioner is reported as saying

“I’ve got a big problem with this. Until now, such information on salary declarations has not appeared, and their general storage in a central file is not legally nor constitutionally allowed.”

My own (German) wife’s reaction to this news was more succinct “I thought these people had agreed that the Stasi was a bad thing?”. The German blogs I could find seemed to be equally opposed to the idea.

For now though, the legislation has entered into force and the reporting has begun. We can only hope that appropriate measures have been taken to store the data in a secure location, using appropriate encryption, that the data entry and retrieval mechanisms are protected with strong encryption and multi-factor authentication and that the appropriate organisational policies and procedures have been put in place to protect this highly sensitive data.

It is an absolute certainty that a centralised data repository of this size and significance will attract the hacking and cracking attentions of criminals, script-kiddies and “hobbyists” alike.

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Gordon Brown promises full body scanners at UK airports

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has given the go-ahead for full body scanners to be introduced at Britain’s airports.

BAA, which runs six UK airports, said it would now install the machines “as soon as is practical” at Heathrow.

Experts have questioned the scanners’ effectiveness at detecting the type of bomb allegedly used on Christmas Day in an attempted plane attack over Detroit.

The US is also introducing tougher checks for air passengers from nations deemed to have links with terrorism.

Speaking on BBC One’s Andrew Marr show, the prime minister said the government would do everything in its power to tighten security and prevent a repeat of the US attack.

Hand luggage checks

Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is now in custody, is accused of trying to detonate a bomb on a plane bound for the US.

Mr Brown said travellers would see the “gradual” introduction of the use of full body scanners and hand luggage checks for traces of explosives.

Brown on Yemen threat and airport security

He added transit passengers as well as transfer passengers would undergo these checks.

Currently, not everyone has to pass through full body scanners already introduced at some major airports overseas – particularly if they are in transit from another country – due to concerns about cost and time delays.

A spokesman for BAA said: “It is our view that a combination of technology, intelligences and passenger profiling will help build a more robust defence against the unpredictable and changing nature of the terrorist threat to aviation.”

The spokesman said nothing had been decided yet on exactly which passengers would undergo the full body scans.

And he declined to give specific details about timing or comment on extending the use of scanners to other airports, costs or the potential for passenger delays.

‘Strip search’

The government’s move has been largely welcomed by the Liberal Democrats.

But home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne did say the scanners could have been rolled out sooner as they had been kept in storage since being trialled.

Meanwhile in the US, President Barack Obama promised “to act quickly to fix flaws” in the security system, and condemned lapses following the alleged Christmas Day bomb plot against a US plane.

Reports say people flying from Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Yemen and Cuba will have pat-down body searches and have carry-on baggage searched.

A computer screen showing the results of a full body scan

Electromagnetic waves are beamed onto passengers to create a 3-D image

The new US security directives will come into effect on Monday.

Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, said scanners were not the only solution and profiling passengers was, in fact, the best way to prevent terrorist acts.

“We’ve got to face the fact that you can build a bomb in the duty free shop, after you’ve gone through screening. Bearing that in mind, we need to look at what people’s intent is, not what they are carrying on their person.”

On Friday, Gordon Brown announced he had ordered a review of existing security measures, and advisers are expected to report within days.

The £80,000 full body scanners, which produce “naked” images of passengers, remove the need for “pat down” searches.

They work by beaming electromagnetic waves on to passengers while they stand in a booth. A virtual three-dimensional image is then created from the reflected energy.

Some have voiced concerns about privacy, with campaigners saying they are tantamount to a “strip search”.

The machines are currently being trialled at Manchester airport following tests at Heathrow airport from 2004 to 2008.

They are also being rolled out across the US, with 40 machines used at 19 airports.

Stasi-like Plan to Check Every Phone Call and Email in Britian

Jonathan Petre
Mail Online

Telecoms firms have accused the Government of acting like the East German Stasi over plans to force them to store the details of every phone call for at least a year.

Under the proposals, the details of every email sent and website visited will also be recorded to help the police and security services fight crime and terrorism.

But mobile phone companies have attacked the plans as a massive assault on privacy and warned it could be the first step towards a centralised ‘Big Brother’ database.

They have also told the Home Office that the scheme is deeply flawed.

The criticism of Britain’s growing ‘surveillance culture’ was made in a series of responses to an official consultation on the plans, which have been obtained by The Mail on Sunday.

T-Mobile said in its submission that it was a ‘particularly sensitive’ time as many people were commemorating the 20th anniversary of the protests that led to the collapse of ‘surveillance states in Eastern Europe’.

Martin Hopkins, head of data protection and disclosure, said: ‘It would be extremely ironic if we at T-Mobile (UK) Ltd had to acquire the surveillance functionality envisaged by the Consultation Document at the same time that our parent company, headquartered in Germany, was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the demise of the equivalent systems established by the Stasi in the federal states of the former East Germany.’

Equally trenchant was the response from Hutchinson 3G Uk Ltd, which read: ‘We take seriously the responsibility of safeguarding our customers’ information and data, and are unconvinced of the safeguards that the Government might make to protect against loss.’

Ulrich MuheUlrich Mühe playing East German Stasi Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler in the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others

The firm also said it had ‘substantial concerns’ over claims that public authorities would only be able to access data on a ‘case-by-case’ basis. It is understood hundreds of public bodies and quangos may also be able to obtain information from the system.

‘It is our belief the safeguards listed in this consultation are incomplete and do not extend far enough,’ it added.

Orange and Vodafone were also highly critical, with a spokesman for Orange saying: ‘The proposals are clearly not about “maintaining” capabilities but rather about “enhancing” existing capabilities.

‘Any debate should address what many will see as a worrying extension of the so-called “surveillance culture”.’

Since October 2007, telecoms companies have been obliged to keep records for a year. Under the new legislation, however, they will also be required to organise it better – for example, by grouping calls made by the same person.

Internet service providers have been required to hold records on emails and website visits since April.

Police and security services can already obtain such information if they are given permission by the courts.

The public will reimburse internet service providers and telecoms companies for the costs associated with storing the billions of records.

A Home Office spokesman said: ‘The police and security services need to be able to use communication data in the fight against crime and terrorism. Communications data forms an important element of prosecution evidence in 95 per cent of the serious crime cases.

‘Access to communications data under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is subject to strict safeguards around how, when and by whom data is obtained.’

The activities of the Stasi, the former East Germany’s secret police, were memorably depicted in the Oscar-winning film The Lives Of Others, starring Ulrich Mühe. At the regime’s height, there were 200,000 agents and informers in a population of only 16million.

Britain Wants Criminal Background Checks for Homeschoolers

A bill proposed by the British government and now making its way through parliament would impose the most burdensome and intrusive regulation on homeschooling in the English-speaking world.

“This bill is breathtaking in its scope and reflects a perverse level of suspicion towards parents who home-educate their children,” says HSLDA Staff Attorney and Director of International Relations Michael Donnelly. “If this bill were to pass, it would be the most restrictive and overbearing law in the English-speaking world. It places total discretion in the hands of local educational officials to determine whether or not they will ‘register’ a home education program and would require criminal background checks for parents before they could begin homeschooling their own children.”

The bill is the result of recommendations made by Graham Badman, whose report was released this past summer and later accepted by the current British government. Current British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently dismissed homeschooler’s concerns about the report. (Read HSLDA’s “Reply to the Badman Report.”

Brown responded to a petition supported by thousands of British homeschoolers calling on their government to reject legislation based on the Badman Report. Brown said that the report and legislation were fine because, “[m]ost developed countries require registration to home educate, with the majority also having a process of systematic monitoring. It is only right we afford our own children and young people the same checks and balances.”1

Free to Homeschool

In reality, few developed countries require registration to homeschool. Neither the United States nor Canada, where the overwhelming majority of homeschoolers reside, require homeschoolers to register with the state. Rather, most North American governments have a system of notification where parents simply inform the authorities that they are homeschooling. “Registration” implies approval. However, no Canadian province and only two of the 50 American states require registration involving the formal approval of homeschools. And in these two states there are virtually no instances where homeschools are disapproved.

It’s also true that few developed countries require systematic monitoring of homeschools. Homeschoolers in the United States and Canada especially enjoy freedom from government interference. Although some American states do have testing requirements for homeschoolers, no state has a system that even remotely resembles that proposed in Britain.

It is troubling to many homeschool advocates that the British government has gotten its facts wrong. It appears the government is trying to use any means necessary to justify their actions against homeschoolers. And though the report is currently the subject of a special inquiry by a parliament committee to determine whether it was conducted properly, its implications have raised concern with homeschool leaders outside Britain as well.

“Real Ignorance”

Paul Farris, president of HSLDA Canada, especially took issue with Brown’s comments about the report:

“The prime minister is wrong about his assertion that ‘systematic monitoring’ is prevalent among developed countries—especially if he means the kind of monitoring called for in the Badman Report. In most Canadian provinces monitoring simply means annual notice, but there is virtually no required performance monitoring at all.

“The Badman Report and this bill shows real ignorance of homeschooling and will not facilitate success in home education but will rather interfere with home education.

“In Canada we have variety, but in our most regulated province of Alberta, authorities there carry out their duties with a good understanding of how home education works. Home education is tremendously successful, with a far higher success rate and far lower failure rate than public education, and therefore does not need the kind of systematic monitoring you have in public education. Home education is a fundamentally different method of educating children. Its success is based on some of those differences. The kind of monitoring the government envisions will threaten home education by discouraging parents.”

Rights at Risk

Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, a charity dedicated to promoting stable family life and the welfare of children, also disagreed with the proposed legislation based on the Badman Report.

“In his Report to the Secretary of State on the Review of Elective Home Education in England, Graham Badman attempts to give the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) precedence over statute, and adopts an extreme interpretation of the Convention,” said Wells. “In so doing, he argues that Article 12 of the UNCRC requires that local authorities be given a right of access to home-educated children in order to ascertain their views on home education.”

Provisions of the British proposal require local education authorities to solicit the views of a child regarding home education, to visit them and interview them alone. The bill allows local authorities to terminate “registration” if parents do not “cooperate” with the local educational authority. The bill also delegates some jurisdiction to the country’s “Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards” to be involved in home education and would require that parents be subjected to criminal background checks before being allowed to homeschool.

“To impose a system of routine monitoring of home-educating families would represent a breach of their right to a private and family life and constitute a waste of public resources,” said Wells. “Furthermore, the proposal to grant the local authority a statutory right of access to the homes of home-educated children is in effect reversing the presumption of innocence in British law and treating parents with suspicion until they have proven themselves innocent.”

Wells highlighted the “sheer madness” of the proposal to conduct background checks. “If it is deemed unsafe for children to be with their parents during normal school hours, it is equally unsafe for them to be with their parents in the evenings, at weekends and during the school holidays,” he said.

Cornerstone of other Freedoms

American homeschoolers should be concerned about what is happening in Britain because it shows how the UNCRC can be used to effectively stop parents from homeschooling freely.

Michael Farris, president of ParentalRights.org, whose goal is to amend the U.S. Constitution to protect parental rights, points out that a restrictive approach to home education is at odds with the fundamental notions of freedom and liberty on which Western nations are built. “Any nation that severely restricts the ability of parents to choose alternative forms of education, including home education, in the name of creating national unity, cannot call itself a free nation. Freedom necessarily requires the individual to have the liberty to think differently and believe differently than programs instituted by the current rulers of any nation. Educational freedom is the cornerstone for all freedom of thought and conscience.”

The proposed law takes Britain down a dangerous path. Other European countries, notably Germany and Sweden, have cracked down on homeschooling. In Germany, the government aggressively persecutes parents who make this choice. HSLDA is supporting the Romeikes, a German family who have applied for political asylum in the United States because of the harsh treatment they were subjected to by German authorities. Their case will be heard Immigration Judge Lawrence Burman in Memphis, Tennessee, on January 20.

Mike Smith, president of HSLDA, wondered what might happen to British homeschoolers if this law is passed.

“What will happen to British homeschoolers if they take a stand against the state?” Smith asked. “The experience in Germany suggests that they will lose custody of their children, be fined and potentially be jailed. We hope and pray that this legislation will not become law because it will turn a nation that was once a free country into one which has become a shadow of its former self.”

The bill has had its first reading in parliament and has received opposition from a number of members who presented petitions criticizing the Badman Report. Many have also called on the English Government to withdraw this draconian legislation.

Donnelly noted that HSLDA would stand behind British homeschoolers fighting the laws.

“We are standing with European homeschoolers threatened by authorities who are either trying to ‘stamp out homeschooling’—as in Germany—or to restrict it to the point of extinction, as in Britain. We are grateful to our members and friends who support our work and our ability to invest in fighting for freedom for parents under fire.”

For more information about HSLDA’s involvement in supporting homeschoolers under fire internationally

Major Corporations Control European Union

It is little wonder that José Manuel Barroso is seldom seen without a grin on his face these days. For the European commission chief is one of the luckiest guys in international politics. First, the appointment of a low-profile Belgian as the EU’s first permanent president has meant that Barroso will be able to keep on behaving as if he is the most powerful man in Brussels. And now, it looks likely that Barroso won’t need to lose any sleep about assembling his new team of commissioners (even if they don’t formally start work until January, a few months later than originally expected).

Theoretically, it’s still possible that MEPs will cause him difficulties as they did in 2004, when they objected to the nomination of Rocco Buttiglione as justice commissioner because the Italian equated homosexuality with sin. The signals from the European parliament have been that if it wanted to embarrass Barroso this time around, it would take issue with the grotesque gender imbalance in the EU executive. However, the probability of this happening has lessened in the past few days as the final composition of his 27-strong team emerged. It features nine women – one more than the outgoing commission.

Like many men, I feel slightly ill-at-ease addressing gender issues. Yet it strikes me that anyone who believes in equality should applaud the campaign being run by the European Women’s Lobby for more females to be appointed to top jobs. Not only would I be in favour of rules stipulating that there should be an equal representation of men and women in EU institutions, I feel that all the obstacles preventing a greater female participation in politics should be removed.

During the 1990s, I worked as a press officer for an Irish MEP who married and had a child following her election; when she inquired about the parliament’s provisions for maternity leave, she was informed that it had none. I’m sure that steps have been taken to rectify this omission since then but the way that EU bodies operate in general (with debates continuing until midnight, for example) can hardly be considered as welcoming to people with young families.

That said, if there’s one thing more important than having more women in politics, it’s ensuring that policies are implemented that genuinely benefit women. And because most politicians of both genders can’t be trusted, there’s no guarantee that female leaders will introduce such policies.

Catherine Ashton, the new EU foreign minister, has held the trade portfolio until now. She has used this to forward an aggressive trade liberalisation programme drawn up by her predecessor, Peter Mandelson. This has involved pressurising a range of poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to open their markets to European goods and companies in a way that shows scant regards for the interests of small-scale farmers and industrial workers, many of them female. Ashton has been particularly adamant that “technical barriers” to trade should be scrapped; these “barriers” are frequently social and environmental laws that multinational firms regard as too onerous. And Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the external relations commissioner, has promoted closer relations with Israel, even as it subjected Palestinian women and children to an increasingly cruel occupation.

To a large degree, the hearings in the European parliament which Barroso’s new team is required to undergo will amount to a tedious charade. The real power in Europe isn’t wielded by MEPs or by unelected officials but by male-dominated corporations. If you don’t believe me, here’s an exercise I recommend. Click on the website of BusinessEurope, the umbrella group for major companies, and read a few of their policy papers. Then check the European commission’s statements on the same subjects; if you can spot any substantial difference, you deserve a higher reward than I can afford to give you.

This week Barroso issued a “consultation paper“, ostensibly designed to kick off a debate on what the EU’s strategic goals should be for the coming decade. The top two priorities it identified were to improve the “knowledge-base” of the European economy and to ensure that its labour markets become more “flexible”. Can it be a coincidence that Jürgen Thumann, the president of BusinessEurope, urged that the EU set exactly the same two priorities in a speech earlier this month?

Both Barroso and Thumann want lower wages (though not for themselves, of course) and measures that curb the influence of trade unions. The former seeks reforms on labour relations to make Europe more competitive, the latter indicates that it’s necessary to “contain wage pressures” to stimulate exports. Despite their claims to the contrary, it seems that they wish to start a process whereby Europe’s welfare states begin to implode, condemning millions of men, women and children to greater hardship. The commission’s recent calls on many EU governments to cut public expenditure suggest, too, that this is its agenda.

Without doubt, Barroso will make some efforts on the public relations front to persuade us that he cares deeply about social and environmental issues. The expected appointment of a commissioner for climate change is one such ploy. Nobody should be fooled by these efforts, however. Barroso may be adept at smiling for the cameras but that’s exactly what you’d expect from an actor reading a script written by the captains of industry.