If the light is on, they can hear (and now see) you

hello-barbie-matel-from-guardianFollowing Samsung’s warning that its television sets can listen into your conversations1, and Barbie’s, even more scary, doll that listens to children in their homes and broadcasts this to the internet2, the latest ‘advances’ make it possible to be seen even when the curtains are closed and you thought you were private.

For many years it has been possible for security services, or for that matter sophisticated industrial espionage, to pick up sounds based on incandescent light bulbs.

The technology itself is not that complicated, vibrations in the room are transmitted to the filament, which minutely changes its electrical characteristics. The only complication is extracting the high-frequency signal from the power line.

040426-N-7949W-007However, this is a fairly normal challenge for high-end listening devices. Years ago when I was working with submarine designers at Slingsby, we were using the magnetic signature of power running through undersea cables to detect where they were for repair. The magnetic signatures were up to 10,000 times weaker than the ‘noise’ from the Earth’s own magnetic field, but we were able to detect the cables with pin-point accuracy3. Military technology for this is far more advanced.

The main problem is the raw computational power needed to process the mass of data coming from even a single lightbulb, but that has never been a barrier for GCHQ or the NSA, and indeed, with cheap RaspberryPi-based super-computers, now not far from the hobbyist’s budget4.

Using the fact that each lightbulb reacts slightly differently to sound, means that it is, in principle, possible to not only listen into conversations, but work out which house and room they come from by simply adding listening equipment at a neighbourhood sub-station.

The benefits of this to security services are obvious. Whereas planting bugs involves access to a building, and all other techniques involve at least some level of targeting, lightbulb-based monitoring could simply be installed, for example, in a neighbourhood known for extremist views and programmed to listen for key words such as ‘explosive’.

For a while, it seemed that the increasing popularity of LED lightbulbs might end this. This is not because LEDs do not have an electrical response to vibrations, but because of the 12V step down transformers between the light and the mains.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to listen into someone in their home, from obvious bugs to laser-beams bounced of glass (you can even get plans to build one of your own at Instructables), or even, as MIT researchers recently demonstrated at SIGGRAPH, picking up the images of vibrations on video of a glass of water, a crisp packet, and even the leaves of a potted plant5. However, these are all much more active and involve having an explicit suspect.

Similarly blanket internet and telephone monitoring have applications, as was used for a period to track Osama bin Laden’s movements6, but net-savvy terrorists and criminals are able to use encryption or bypass the net entirely by exchanging USB sticks.

However, while the transformer attenuates the acoustic back-signal from LEDs, this only takes more sensitive listening equipment and more computation, a lot easier than a vibrating pot-plant on video!

So you might just think to turn up the radio, or talk in a whisper. Of course, as you’ve guessed by now, and, as with all these surveillance techniques, simply yet more computation.

Once the barriers of LEDs are overcome, they hold another surprise. Every LED not only emits light, but acts as a tiny, albeit inefficient, light detector (there’s even an Arduino project to use this principle).   The output of this is a small change in DC current, which is hard to localise, but ambient sound vibrations act as a modulator, allowing, again in principle, both remote detection and localisation of light.

220px-60_LED_3W_Spot_Light_eq_25WIf you have several LEDs, they can be used to make a rudimentary camera7. Each LED lightbulb uses a small array of LEDs to create a bright enough light. So, this effectively becomes a very-low-resolution video camera, a bit like a fly’s compound eye.

While each image is of very low quality, any movement, either of the light itself (hanging pendant lights are especially good), or of objects in the room, can improve the image. This is rather like the principle we used in FireFly display8, where text mapped onto a very low-resolution LED pixel display is unreadable when stationary, but absolutely clear when moving.

pix-11  pix-21
pix-12  pix-22
LEDs produce multiple very-low-resolution image views due to small vibrations and movement9.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Sufficient images and processing can recover an image.

So far MI5 has not commented on whether it uses, or plans to use this technology itself, nor whether it has benefited from information gathered using it by other agencies. Of course its usual response is to ‘neither confirm nor deny’ such things, so without another Edward Snowden, we will probably never know.

So, next time you sit with a coffee in your living room, be careful what you do, the light is watching you.

  1. Not in front of the telly: Warning over ‘listening’ TV. BBC News, 9 Feb 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-31296188[back]
  2. Privacy fears over ‘smart’ Barbie that can listen to your kids. Samuel Gibbs, The Guardian, 13 March 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/13/smart-barbie-that-can-listen-to-your-kids-privacy-fears-mattel[back]
  3. “Three DSP tricks”, Alan Dix, 1998. http://alandix.com/academic/papers/DSP99/DSP99-full.html[back]
  4. “Raspberry Pi at Southampton: Steps to make a Raspberry Pi Supercomputer”, http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~sjc/raspberrypi/[back]
  5. A. Davis, M. Rubinstein, N. Wadhwa, G. Mysore, F. Durand and W. Freeman (2014). The Visual Microphone: Passive Recovery of Sound from Video. ACM Transactions on Graphics (Proc. SIGGRAPH), 33(4):79:1–79:10 http://people.csail.mit.edu/mrub/VisualMic/[back]
  6. Tracking Use of Bin Laden’s Satellite Phone, all Street Journal, Evan Perez, Wall Street Journal, 28th May, 2008. http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2008/05/28/tracking-use-of-bin-ladens-satellite-phone/[back]
  7. Blinkenlight, LED Camera. http://blog.blinkenlight.net/experiments/measurements/led-camera/[back]
  8. Angie Chandler, Joe Finney, Carl Lewis, and Alan Dix. 2009. Toward emergent technology for blended public displays. In Proceedings of the 11th international conference on Ubiquitous computing (UbiComp ’09). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 101-104. DOI=10.1145/1620545.1620562[back]
  9. Note using simulated images; getting some real ones may be my next Tiree Tech Wave project.[back]

lies, damned lies, and the BBC

I have become increasingly annoyed and distressed over the years at the way the media decides a narrative for various news stories and then selectively presents the facts to tell the story, ignoring or suppressing anything that suggests a more nuanced or less one-sided account.

BBC-news-headline-13-Feb-2015-croppedSometimes I agree with the overall narrative, sometimes I don’t.  Either way the B-movie Western accounts, which cannot recognise that the baddies can sometimes do good and the goodies may not be pristine, both distort the public’s view of the world and perhaps more damagingly weaken the critical eye that is so essential for democracy.

For the newspapers, we know that they have an editorial stance and I expect a different view of David Cameron’s welfare policy in The Guardian compared with The Telegraph. Indeed, I often prefer to read a newspaper I disagree with as it is easier to see the distortions when they clash with one’s own preconceptions.  One of the joys of the British broadsheet press is that whatever the persuasion, the underlying facts are usually there, albeit deeply buried towards the end of a long article.

However, maybe unfairly, I have higher expectations of the BBC, which are sadly and persistently dashed.  Here it seems not so much explicit editorial policy (although one hears that they do get leant upon by government occasionally), more that they believe a simplistic narrative is more acceptable to the viewer … and maybe they just begin to believe there own stories.

A typical (in the sense of terrifyingly bad) example of this appeared this morning.

After the wonderful news of a peace agreement in Ukraine yesterday, this morning the report read:

Ukraine crisis: Shelling follows Minsk peace summit

The ceasefire is due to start on Sunday, so one can only hope this is a last violent outburst, although to what avail as the borders are already set by the Minsk agreement.

The first few lines of the article read as follows:

New shelling has been reported in the rebel-held east Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, a day after a peace deal was reached in Minsk.

There are no confirmed reports of casualties. Both cities are near the front line where the pro-Russian rebels face government forces.

The ceasefire agreed in the Belarusian capital is to begin in eastern Ukraine after midnight (22:00 GMT) on Saturday.

The EU has warned Russia of additional sanctions if the deal is not respected.

If you have kept abreast of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and can remember your geography, then you will know that this means the Ukrainian Army was shelling rebel-held cities.  However, if you are less aware, this is not the immediate impression of the article.

First notice the passive wording of the title.  Imagine if this had been Syria, the headline would have surely been “Assad’s forces bombard Syrian cities” or “Syrian Army shell civilian areas“.  While the BBC may want to avoid flamboyant titles (although do not demure elsewhere) the article itself is no better.

The opening paragraphs mention ‘shelling’, ‘rebels’ and the EU warning Russians to clean up their act.  The emotional and rhetorical impact is that in some way Russians are to blame for the shelling of cities, and indeed when I read the words to Fiona this was precisely what she assumed.

That is, while the facts are there, they are presented in such a way that the casual reader takes away precisely the opposite of the truth.  In other words, the BBC reporting, whether intentionally or unintentionally, systematically misleads the public.

To be fair, in the earliest version of the article its later parts report first Ukrainian army deaths and then civilian casualties in rebel-held areas:

On Friday morning, a military spokesman in Kiev said eight members of Ukraine’s military had been killed in fighting against separatists in the past 24 hours.

The rebels said shelling killed three civilians in Luhansk, reported AFP news agency.

(Although the second sentence is removed from later versions of the article.)

BBC-news-early-13-Feb-2015-cropped BBC-news-later-13-Feb-2015-cropped
early and later version of same BBC story

The early versions of the article also included an image of a wall in Kiev commemorating Ukrainian army deaths, but not the graphic images of civilian casualties that would be used in other conflicts1. This was later changed to a refugee departing on a bus to Russia ((Later still the image of an armoured vehicle was also added.  I’d not realised before just how much these news stories are post-edited)), which better reflects the facet behind the article.

Of course, this is not a one-sided conflict, and later reports from the region during he day include rebel shelling of government held areas as well as government shelling.  Both sides need to be reported, but the reporting practice seems to be to deliberately obfuscate the far more prevalent Ukrainian army attacks on civilian areas.

If this were just a single news item, it could be just the way things turn out, and other news items might be biased in other directions, but the misreporting is systematic and long term.  Many of BBCs online news items include a short potted history of the conflict, which always says that the current conflict started with Russian annexing of Crimea, conveniently ignoring the violent overthrow of the elected government which led to this.  Similarly the BBC timeline for Ukraine starts in 1991 with the Ukrainian referendum to separate from the USSR, conveniently ignoring the similar overwhelming referendum in Crimea earlier in 1991 to separate from Ukraine2.

To be fair on the journalists on the ground, it is frequently clear that their own raw accounts have a different flavour to the commentary added when footage is edited back in London.

In some way Ukraine could be seen as a special case, the Russians are the bogey men of the today, just like Germany was 100 years ago and France was 100 years previously, it is hard for a journalist to say, “actually in this case they have a point“.

Yet, sadly, the above account could be repeated with different details, but the same underlying message in so many conflicts in frequent times.  Will the media, and the BBC, ever trust the public with the truth, or will ‘news’ always be a B movie?

  1. Maybe this is just deemed too horrifying; a recent Times report of Donetsk morgue includes graphic accounts of shrapnel torn babies, but does not include the Getty images of the morgue preferring an image of an unexploded rocket.[back]
  2. While ignoring the history of Crimea. which does seem germane to the current conflict, the BBC timeline is overall relatively fair; for example, making clear that Yanukovych’s election was “judged free and fair by observers“.[back]

being British? always a second class citizen

The most important reason for a ‘Yes’ vote in the upcoming Scottish independence referendum is the potential for a new nation that is a beacon of a fairer, greener and more inclusive society.  This would ultimately be to the good of the whole of the UK.

However, I’ve also noted a general lack of comprehension by many south of the border who struggle to understand the desire for Scottish Independence.

This was voiced a few days ago in a Facebook thread and this was my response as a Welshman living north of the border.:

As a Welshman I have always had a romantic nationalist edge, but also felt a strong British patriotism.

However events over the years, and not least the referendum campaign have hardened this.  Again and again Westminster politicians tell us that Scotland is better with England, as if Wales and Northern Ireland did not exist.

I have heard this language all my life: in the 50th anniversary celebrations of the second World War, in numerous debates in immigration, in company registration (registered in Cardiff, a company in England and Wales, but subject to *English* law), … and has been noted several times the Bank of England.

The difference in this campaign is that this is when politicians are supposed to be being careful of their language.  We even had the government lawyer explaining that the separated rUK and Scotland would not be equally parts of a previous single nation when looking towards external international bodies, not based on measures such as the population (reasonable), but because really and legally Scotland was never a partner country in a union, but was always amalgamated unto England.

There have been hundreds of years to sort out these things, but it has not happened yet, what chance for the next 100 years?

As a  child I was pedalled a lie.

There never was, and never will be a Britain.

As a Welshman, I am as British as Indians were in the ‘British Empire’.

Within the UK I always have been, and always will be, a second class citizen.

In contrast to this Scotland (despite sectarian tensions that erupt occasionally in Celtic-Rangers crowds) accepts incomers as was amply demonstrated in the difference between the spitting bigotry of the Westminster leaders’ debates at the last General Election compared with the far more civilised, cultured,and above all inclusive Scottish leaders’ debate, with all parties, including the Scottish Conservative leader, praising the richness through diversity and immigration.

Whether it is a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’, the shape of the UK will change fundamentally tomorrow.

If it is ‘No’, I hope the UK will eventually wake up to the fact that it is a nation of nations.

If it is ‘Yes’, then I know, that even as a Welshman far from my birthplace, I will be in a country where I can feel at home.

India and APCHI

I am sitting in the Crowne Plaza hotel in Bangelore looking down over the city spreading seemingly endlessly as far as I can see.  Here, out in the suburbs and in the heart of Electronics City, the Hi-Tech enclave, the view is a mix of green trees, concrete offices and small apartment blocks in a pastel palette of lime greens, mauve tinted blues and burnt umber.  There is an absence of yellow and red apart from the girder work of a partly constructed building and airline-warning red and white mobile antennae tower; maybe these are inauspicious colours.  A major highway and the raised highway cut across the view and the airport is presumably far out of site in the afternoon heat haze, it was a near two hour ride away on Wednesday when I arrived in the midst of rush hour, but hoping it is a shorter journey tomorrow morning when I need to catch 6am flight.

I’ve had a wonderful time here seeing many old faces from previous visits to India a few years ago, and also meeting new people.  It was especially great to see Fariza as I hadn’t realised she was going to be here from Malaysia.  It was also wonderful seeing Dhaval and spending time with his family after the end of the conference yesterday, and today reading some of his recent work at ABB on bug reproduction in software maintenance.

Seeing Dhaval’s work and talking to him about it reminded me of the debugging lectures I did some years ago as part of a first year software engineering module.  For many years I have been meaning to extend these to make a small book on debugging.  It is one of those areas, like creativity, where people often feel you either have it or not, or at bets can pick up the skills one time.  However, I feel there is a lot you can explicitly teach about each.

Yesterday was my closing keynote at APCHI 2013.  I’ve put the slides and abstract online and I am working on full notes of the talk.  It felt odd at times talking about some the the issues of rural connectivity and poverty raise by my walk around Wales given the far greater extremes here in India.  However, if anything, this makes the messages for both public policy and design more important.

As I talked both in the keynote and one-to-one with people during the conference, I was constantly returning to some of the ways that in the UK we seem to be throwing away many of the positive advances of the 20th century: the resurgence of rickets and scurvy amongst poor children, the planned privatisation of the Royal Mail, one of the key enablers of the 19th century commercial revolution, and most sad of all the depraved demonisation of the poor that is rife in politics and the media.

There were many interesting papers and posters.  Two demos particularly caught my eye as they represented different aspects of the link between physical and digital worlds, issues that Steve, Devina, Jo and I have been exploring in TouchIT and the Physicality workshop series.  One was a system that augments paper textbooks with electronic resources using a combination of computer vision (to recognise pages in the book) and semantic extraction (for example getting historical timelines from Wikipedia). The other was  a physical ‘drop box’, where you put papers into a slot and then they were copied as images into your DropBox account.  It made me think of the major scan and bin exercise I did a few years ago drastically reducing my piles of old papers.

However, the high spot of the conference for me was Ravi Poovaiah‘s keynote “Designing for the next billion” on Thursday about design for the ‘middle of the pyramid’, those who are out of abject poverty and therefore have access to basic IT and so the design community can do most about.  This does not reduce the needs of those at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’, for whom basic education and healthcare are the most immediate needs.

In the UK not only are the extremes less, few except the homeless would qualify as ‘bottom of the pyramid’, but also they tend to be more segregated. Here a modern glass fronted international retail chain can sit next to a semi-derilict (to western eyes) motorbike repair shop, with used tyres piled on the pavement.  This said, to my mind, with my aesthetic of decay that is maybe the privilege of those who do not have to live it, the latter is far more engaging.  One of India’s challenges is whether it can move through its economic explosion without the attendant dissolution of local identity, culture and family that is the legacy of the industrial revolution in the UK.

 

Walking Wales

As some of you already know, next year I will be walking all around Wales: from May to July covering just over 1000 miles in total.

Earlier this year the Welsh Government announced the opening of the Wales Coastal Path a new long distance footpath around the whole coast of Wales. There were several existing long distance paths covering parts of the coastline, as well as numerous stretches of public footpaths at or near the coast. However, these have now been linked, mapped and waymarked creating for the first time, a continuous single route. In addition, the existing Offa’s Dyke long distance path cuts very closely along the Welsh–English border, so that it is possible to make a complete circuit of Wales on the two paths combined.

As soon as I heard the announcement, I knew it was something I had to do, and gradually, as I discussed it with more and more people, the idea has become solid.

This will not be the first complete periplus along these paths; this summer there have been at least two sponsored walkers taking on the route. However, I will be doing the walk with a technology focus, which will, I believe, be unique.

The walk has four main aspects:

personal — I am Welsh, was born and brought up in Cardiff, but have not lived in Wales for over 30 years. The walk will be a form of homecoming, reconnecting with the land and its people that I have been away from for so long. The act of encircling can symbolically ‘encompass’ a thing, as if knowing the periphery one knows the whole. Of course life is not like this, the edge is just that, not the core, not the heart. As a long term ex-pat, a foreigner in my own land, maybe all I can hope to do is scratch the surface, nibble at the edges. However, also I always feel most comfortable as an outsider, as one at the margins, so in some ways I am going to the places where I most feel at home. I will blog, audio blog, tweet and generally share this experience to the extent the tenuous mobile signal allows, but also looking forward to periods of solitude between sea and mountain.

practical — As I walk I will be looking at the IT experience of the walker and also discuss with local communities the IT needs and problems for those at the edges, at the margins. Not least will be issues due to the paucity of network access both patchy mobile signal whilst walking and low-capacity ‘broadband’ at the limits of wind-beaten copper telephone wires — none of the mega-capacity fibre optic of the cities. This will not simply be fact-finding, but actively building prototypes and solutions, both myself (in evenings and ‘days off’) and with others who are part of the project remotely or joining me for legs of the journey1. Geolocation and mobile based applications will be a core part of this, particularly for the walkers experience, but local community needs likely to be far more diverse.

philosophical — Mixed with personal reflections will be an exploration of the meanings of place, of path, of walking, of nomadicity and of locality. Aristotle’s school of philosophy was called the Peripatetic School because discussion took place while walking; over two thousand years later Wordsworth’s poetry was nearly all composed while walking; and for time immemorial routes of pilgrimage have been a focus of both spiritual service and personal enlightenment. This will build on some of my own previous writings in particular past keynotes2 on human understanding of space, and also wider literature such as Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful “Wanderlust“.  This reflection will inform the personal blogging, and after I finish I will edit this into a book or account of the journey.

research3 — the practical outcomes will intersect with various personal research interests including social empowerment, interaction design and algorithmics4.  For the walker’s experience, I will be effectively doing a form of action research!.  This will certainly include how to incorporate local maps (such as tourists town plans) effectively into more large-scale experiences, how ‘crowdsourced’ route knowledge can augment more formal digital and paper resources, data synchonisation to deal with disconnection, and data integration between diverse sources.  In addition I am offering myself as a living lab so that others can use my trip as a place to try out their own sensors and instrumentation5, information systems, content authoring, ethnographic practices, community workshops, etc.  This may involve simply asking me to use things, coming for a single meeting or day, or joining me for parts of the walk.

If any of this interests you, do get in touch.  As well as research collaborations (living lab or supporting direct IT goals) any help in managing logistics, PR, or finding sources of funding/sponsorship for basic costs, most welcome.

I’ll get a dedicated website, Facebook page, twitter account, and charity sponsorship set up soon … watch this space!

  1. Coding whilst walking is something I have thought about (but not done!) for many years, but definitely inspired more recently by Nick the amazing cycling programmer who came to the Spring Tiree Tech Wave.[back]
  2. Welsh Mathematician Walks in Cyberspace“, and “Paths and Patches: patterns of geognosy and gnosis“.[back]
  3. I tried to think of a word beginning with ‘p’ for research, but failed![back]
  4. As I tagged this post I found I was using nearly all my my most common tags — I hadn’t realised quite how much this project cuts across so many areas of interest.[back]
  5. But with the “no blood rule”: if I get sensor sores, the sensors go in the bin 😉 [back]

I want to pay more tax too

Some of the ‘super rich’ in the US are beginning to ask publicly why it is they pay so little tax.  For those of us less rich, but still with above average salaries, perhaps we should be asking the same.  In the UK the effective rate of tax is 32% for those on average pay and 40% for those on high pay, hardly a progressive system.  Yes government, please tax the super rich more, but tax me properly too.

I have just have read Stephen King fantastic article “Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake!1 where he joins Warren Buffett in questioning why he, as part of the super rich, does not pay more tax.  He does give to charity, but argues that that this is not the same as paying tax, which is crucially abut citizenary.  This all falls out from statistics that show the richest in the US end up paying a far smaller percentage of their income than the average citizen.  Effectively King argues that the issue here is not about entitlement or rights, but responsibility.

King is talking about the super rich in the US and similar statistics in the UK show the richest 10% paying only marginally more taxes than the poorest 10%, and certainly less than the average tax payer.

However, the same arguments also apply to those who are not super rich, but on the better end of the income scale —  including me.

In recent years I have cut my income substantially by choosing to work part-time in order to (try to!) do more personal research, still some of my income falls into ‘higher rate’ tax — so by that measure I am well off2.

You might think that being in the higher tax threshold means you pay a lot more tax; after all the basic rate tax in the UK is 20% and the higher rate is 40%.  You might think that, but think again!  Even without tax avoidance measures used by the very rich or the fact that the poor tend to end up paying more indirect taxes such as VAT (purchase tax) and duty (on alcohol and fuel), still my marginal rate is only slightly higher than that of basic income.  I pay an effective marginal rate of 40%, but those on lower income in reality pay 32%, not the 20% that it says ‘on the tin’.

The reason for this is National Insurance.  For those not on the UK, this is an additional tax, started in 1911 and expanded in the 1940s to pay for health, pension and other welfare provision — just as you might take out a private health insurance, or pension, national insurance was intended to be a sort of pooled insurance arranged by government.  However unlike private insurance, it has always been redistributive — the rich pay more, but do not get proportionally higher benefits.

In the UK since the Thatcher years, but continued by subsequent Labour governments, there has been a gradual shift from ‘in your face’ income tax, to less visible taxes, notably National Insurance and VAT.  In 1978 National Insurance was at 6.75% (on income over a lower threshold) and the standard rate of VAT, paid on most basic goods and services you bought in shops, was 8%3.  Currently the equivalent figures are 12% for National Insurance and 20% for VAT.  That is the combined effect of these less visible taxes has more than doubled from 14.75% in 1978 to 32% today4.  Because these are flat rate taxes, they hit the poor as much as the rich.

However, it is worse than this first appears.  National Insurance has a maximum cut off point.  Above a certain point, you pay no more National Insurance … and crucially this point cuts in just before higher rate tax starts.  This means that in one’s pay cheque if you are earning an average wage you pay 32% of every additional pound in tax, whereas if your income is higher, over £40,000 or so, you pay 40%.

I’ll say this again, as it always seems unbelievable — in the UK, without any additional measures to reduce tax liability, the real difference between basic rate and higher tax is just 8%.

If then the person earning £15,000 buys a basketful of ordinary VAT goods, out of the 68p they have left they pay over 13p VAT, whereas the person with £50,000 income out the 60p in the pound they have left pay an additional 12p.  Adding the effect of VAT that makes the effective total rates of tax on an ordinary shopping basket at 45.6% for basic rate tax payers vs 52% for those on higher income.  In fact, even this is a little of a simplification, as some goods are zero rated (principally food) and some have additional duties (principally alcohol and fuel), but in fact this tends to make things worse as typically richer households have spending patterns that have a lower proportion of VAT and duty.

Like the US, the UK system is not progressive; so with Stephen King I say, “I want to pay more tax5.

In particular, take the lid of National Insurance, make me pay full National insurance on all my income.  At a conservative estimate this would be equivalent to the revenue of 5% VAT6 — if we all paid full NI, then either spending cuts could be less draconian, or the VAT rate could be cut by 5%, either of which would have a dramatic effect on those at the bottom of society for whom the pressing problem is not getting the best offshore tax break, but finding the next meal.

  1. Which he wrote in April, so I am a bit behind![back]
  2. Although you do have to be careful in using higher rate threshold as meaning ‘well off’, as the UK system is incredibly family-unfriendly.  Because tax is on an individual not household basis, if a couple earn £20,000 each they pay very little tax, but if one is not working — in particular if engaged in full-time child care — and one is earning £40,000, then that is heavily taxed.  This anomaly became apparent recently when the government proposed removing child-benefit, one of the few universal benefits, from those where one of the parents is paying higher rate tax. Strangely, when it comes to welfare benefits households become the unit! [back]
  3. See UK Tax History for historical rates of National Insurance and VAT.[back]
  4. See HM Revenue & Customs site for current NI and VAT rates.[back]
  5. And yes, I know that I can give to charity and indeed do tithe through Charities Aid Foundation and make other payments, but, as King argues, that is NOT the same as paying taxes.[back]
  6. I recall doing the calculations for this when the new government put up VAT some years ago, it was hard to get detailed figures for higher rate tax earnings, but made this estimate based on lower bounds of various brackets.[back]

open data: for all or the few?

On Twitter Jeni Tennison asked:

Question: aside from personally identifiable data, is there any data that *should not* be open?  @JenT 11:19 AM – 14 Jul 12

This sparked a Twitter discussion about limits to openness: exposure of undercover agents, information about critical services that could be exploited by terrorists, etc.   My own answer was:

maybe all data should be open when all have equal ability to use it & those who can (e.g. Google) make *all* processed data open too   @alanjohndix 11:34 AM – 14 Jul 12

That is, it is not clear that just because data is open to all, it can be used equally by everyone.  In particular it will tend to be the powerful (governments and global companies) who have the computational facilities and expertise to exploit openly available data.

In India statistics about the use of their own open government data1 showed that the majority of access to the data was by well-off males over the age of 50 (oops that may include me!) – hardly a cross section of society.  At  a global scale Google makes extensive use of open data (and in some cases such as orphaned works or screen-scraped sites seeks to make non-open works open), but, quite understandably for a profit-making company, Google regards the amalgamated resources as commercially sensitive, definitely not open.

Open data has great potential to empower communities and individuals and serve to strengthen democracy2.  However, we need to ensure that this potential is realised, to develop the tools and education that truly make this resource available to all3.  If not then open data, like unregulated open markets, will simply serve to strengthen the powerful and dis-empower the weak.

  1. I had a reference to this at one point, but can’t locate it, does anyone else have the source for this.[back]
  2. For example, see my post last year “Private schools and open data” about the way Rob Cowen @bobbiecowman used UK government data to refute the government’s own education claims.[back]
  3. In fact there are a variety of projects and activities that work in this area: hackathons, data analysis and visualisation websites such as IBM Many Eyes, data journalism such as Guardian Datablog and some government and international agencies go beyond simply publishing data and offer tools to help users interpret it (I recall Enrico Bertini, worked on this with one of the UN bodies some years go). Indeed there will be some interesting data for mashing at the next Tiree Tech Wave in the autumn.[back]

Status Code 451- and the burning of books

I was really pleased to see that Alessio Malizia has just started to blog.  An early entry is a link to a Guardian article about Tim Bray‘s suggestion for a new status code of 451 when a site is blocked for legal reasons.

Bray’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion is both honouring Ray Bradbury, the author of Faranheit 451, and also satirising the censorship implicit in IP blocking such as the UK High Court decision in April to force ISPs to block Pirate Bay.

However, I have a feeling that perhaps the satire could be seen, so to speak, as on the other foot.

Faranheit 451 is about a future where books are burnt because they have increasingly been regarded as meaningless by a public focused on quick fix entertainment and mindless media: censorship more the result than the cause of societal malaise.

Just as Huxley’s Brave New World seemed to sneak up upon us until science fiction was everyday life, maybe Bradbury’s world is here with the web itself not the least force in the dissolution of intellectual life.

Bradbury foresaw ‘firemen’ who burnt the forbidden books, following in a long history of biblioclasts from the destruction of the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal at Ninevah to Nazi book burnings in the 1930s.  However, today it is the availability of information on the internet which is often used as an excuse for the closure of libraries, and publishers foresee the end of paper publication in the next five years.

Paradoxically it is the rearguard actions of publishers (albeit largely to protect profit not principle) that is one of the drivers behind IP blocking and ‘censorship’ of copyright piracy sites.  If I were to assign roles from Faranheit 451 to the current day protagonists it would be hard to decide which is more like the book-burning firemen.

Maybe Faranheit 451 has happened and we never noticed.

Gordon’s example to us all

Last night I read a BBC article on Gordon Brown’s earnings since he stopped being Prime Minister a few years ago.  I felt a lump coming to my throat as I read the story.  Ex-PMs typically have lucrative post-government careers with lecture tours and the like.  Gordon Brown has similarly earned 1.4 million pounds in lecture fees and book royalties, but then given it all away.

In the run up to the General Election in 2010 I wrote how I gradually warmed to Gordon Brown during the campaign as it became increasingly clear that he was a man of true integrity.  This is another indication of that integrity, and utterly amazing to see in the modern world.

Of course he was not pretty like David Cameron or Nick Clegg, nor could he control his irritation when faced with objectionable, if popular, views.  In short, not a showman, nor a celebrity, not slick, not ‘political – just a genuinely good man.

It is sad that that is not sufficient to impress the 21st-century voter.

Lies vs. facts: the 26k benefits ceiling

In the UK the government is proposing a ceiling on benefits of £26,000. This sounds a large figure, indeed it is the median income, so seems reasonable that someone out of work should not receive more than the average working person. The press is, of course, polarised on the issue, as is the Church of England.

I was particularly interested in the coverage in last Wednesday’s Daily Mail, partly as this was where the former Archbishop of Canterbury chose to issue a statement about the issue, and partly because I was on a BA flight and it is one of the free newspapers! This issue of the Mail contained an article, “The hard workers who are proud not to claim”1, detailing the circumstances of three different working and tax-paying households living below or close to the proposed £26,000 limit, who can’t understand why they are working and paying taxes to support others to live on more than them.

I wondered about the truth behind these stories.  As you might imagine, the Mail’s stories were, to be generous, disingenuous, and most probably misleading, both to their readers and those they interviewed. When you work out the actual figures and facts behind the stories, things turn out rather differently then they were projected.

The issue of the proposed £26,000 benefits ceiling was particularly hot in the news after the House of Lords made radical amendments to the bill. The opposition in the Lords to proposed benefits reforms comes not just from the Labour benches, but includes some LibDems and Conservatives, and, vocally, several Church of England bishops2.

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, weighed into this debate chastising his fellow bishops in the Lords, on the grounds that the weight that the national debt lays on our children is a major moral issue and the runaway benefits bill is a crucial part of controlling this.

There are of course differing views on how fast and how radically we should be attempting to cut national debt and how this should be accomplished. What is notable is that Carey chose to make this statement in the Daily Mail. My guess is he chose the Mail, rather than, say, the Times or the Telegraph (let alone the Independent or Guardian, who might have published it alongside contrary views), is that the Mail is much more a paper for ordinary Middle England folk, the ‘squeezed middle’, who feel they are paying the bulk of the taxes that fund the burgeoning benefits budget.

Whilst the ‘quality’ newspapers push their own particular viewpoint, they do follow a certain journalistic ethic, and normally within their articles you find the full facts, as they know them. Now, this is sometimes very deeply buried, to the point of disinformation, but is at least present; the careful reader can see the counter arguments through the opinion.

The Mail has no such scruples; it is unashamedly a newspaper of persuasion not information.

Given this, however much the Mail is targeting a particular demographic, Carey’s choice seemed misguided or naive.

In particular, in the same copy as Carey’s statement, there was the article describing the three households, all in tight economic circumstances, but who are working, paying tax to fund benefits, but not on benefits themselves. This is, in fact, excellent journalism, cold figures are hard to comprehend, real examples can convey the truth better than abstractions.

One household was a single woman, Rachel, living on her own; the second, Lauren and David, an engaged couple with a baby living with one of their parents; and the third, Emma and Darren, a married couple with two small twins, living in a rented house. They all had net incomes below or close to the proposed £26,000 benefits cap, and in each case the description ends with a personal statement, which expresses their frustration that, while they manage to cope on their income, why should people need £26,000 when not in work:

I don’t understand why people would need to claim more than £26,000 in benefits if I can live comfortably on this“, Rachel

It’s crazy that people say they can’t live of £26,000. People need to make sacrifices like the rest of us have.“, Lauren

“It makes us very angry that my husband works so hard and pays tax on his income, which goes to pay the benefits bills of all those people who don’t work and who receive more money than us.“, Emma

What the Mail reporters clearly failed to tell any of these families is what they would be receiving on benefits if they were suddenly made redundant and out of work.

Just to see I put each of these people’s circumstances into the government benefits calculator and a housing benefit calculator3.

Rachel, lives alone with £16,000 gross income and £13,000 net income. She describes rent (£500) and bills taking up most of her income, but leaving her with £250 a month for “recreational and leisure activities“, allowing her to “live comfortably“. If she lost her job her benefits including housing benefit to contribute to rent would total £9,774 per annum (£53.45 job seekers allowance, £19.38 council tax rebate4, £115.30 housing benefit). That is just what she describes as her basic bills with none of her recreation or leisure. I’m sure if asked whether she would be happy to live on this, her answer would be different.

Lauren and David fare worst; they have a gross salary of £33,000, with a net income of £27,560 (including child benefit and child tax credits). If they were both to lose their job, they would take home a total of £200.61 a week, around £10,500 per annum5. It was Lauren who said, “People need to make sacrifices like the rest of us have“. If the Mail reporter had explained to her that she would have to cope on 2/5 of their current take-home money would she feel the same?

It is the last family however, that does appear to highlight anomalies in the benefits system. Darren works in public transport and has a gross pay of precisely £26,000, leaving Emma and Darren with a take home pay of £21,608 (including child benefit). If Darren lost his job (or found himself unable to work as he has a medical condition) and both of them registered as job seekers (although Emma is currently looking after the children at home) then they would receive a total of £24,295 a year (just over £15,000 of this is basic benefit, the rest council tax relief6 and housing benefit), more than their current take home pay.

The reason for this disparity is that Emma and Darren do not attempt to claim benefits: “We are proud that we’re not on benefits, although sometimes it can be really hard“. In fact they would be eligible for substantial housing benefits7, which would presumably make all the difference for them and their children.

The shame of being on welfare runs deep, and, assuming Emma and Darren are Mail readers, no doubt fanned by the constant stories of welfare scroungers and the ‘feckless’. They quite rightly want to instil an ethic of hard work into their children, but do not feel able to claim benefits, which they will have contributed to through tax and national insurance throughout their previous working lives, in order to help as they bring up those same children now.

Interestingly, they are happy to accept child benefit (and I assume child tax credit, although not explicitly mentioned), and when the children are of school age will not send them to a fee-paying school, but happy to send them to a state school, effectively an educational ‘benefit’ of around £16,000 a year, let alone insist on paying for hospital and doctors fees for delivery of the twins and subsequent medical care.

The difference is that these benefits, allowances, and services are universal, and so seen as ‘rights’ as a taxpayer, even if, as in the case of this family, you are a net beneficiary.

This very much strengthens the case for maintaining child benefit as a non-means tested benefit. In general, many benefits are not claimed, whether through pride, principles or ignorance. The one exception is child benefit, which is both universally accepted and well targeted8.

Maybe if appraised of the full facts each of the people interviewed by the Mail might still feel the same, particularly Emma and Darren. Maybe too Mail readers would feel the same if presented with the truth. But clearly the Mail does not trust its readers to make up their own minds if given the full facts, and sadly Lord Carey has leant his weight behind this deliberate disinformation; unintentionally, but very persuasively helping to mislead the public.

  1. “The hard workers who are proud not to claim”, Daily Mail, Wednesday, January 25, 2012, p. 7.[back]
  2. Whether they should be in the second house in the first place is another issue![back]
  3. I used the Tonbridge & Malling Bourough Council’s web site as this has an online housing benefit calculator.  While currently housing benefit is similar across the country, this may change in the future with government plans for ‘localising support‘, the potential impact of which has been under-reported.[back]
  4. For Rachel on a one bedroom flat I estimated a council tax bill of £1000.[back]
  5. This figure is particularly low as  they live with parents.  While the government makes strong statements about family values, there are equally strong disincentives to support close family.  If Lauren and David were out of work, but with friends rather than parents, they would be able to pay rent to contribute to household costs, which they could then claim against housing benefit.  Furthermore, if a grown-up child receives cash support from parents, it is regarded as income for the calculation of benefits.[back]
  6. For Emma and Darren I estimated an annual council tax bill of £1500.[back]
  7. Housing benefit is perhaps the greatest cause of anomalies in the systems. Even Boris Johnson was against a cap in housing benefit, as the proposed, albeit apparently high, limit would still make large areas of London (not just the fancy bits!) no go areas for anyone on an average wage including nurses, transport workers, etc.. The situation gets even more complicated with those with a mortgage, as mortgage interest is deemed a cost for benefits calculation when you are out of work, but not when you have a job.[back]
  8. More broadly there is a minority suggestion (I believe only the Green Party in the UK support this) to replace all tax allowances and basic benefits, with a universal wage or ‘basic income‘, effectively an amount for every adult and child, deemed high enough for basic survival (probably close to current basic benefit levels). Indeed the amount you gain through the personal tax allowance, the amount you can earn without paying tax, is very close to a single person’s job seekers allowance, so this is very nearly a ‘zero sum’ for tax payers without children.[back]