Just you, me and the NSA

Privacy is so last millenium. Security is the thing. We have bought our security with our privacy. The trouble is that we don’t know quite what we’ve done, since the providers of security now have the privacy, while we don’t. Oops.

So we are completely in the dark in the matter of what the NSA and GCHQ (and no doubt others too) have done with our online lives.  And just to make it that bit more difficult, everyone is denying everything – governments and companies alike. Only Edward Snowden stands out against the crowd, saying that the NSA has gone too far. And he has disappeared.

William Hague has said that if only we knew what the security services were doing we would be ‘enormously reassured’. Well if there really were some transparency here we might indeed begin to be reassured. But his remarks alone cannot reassure us,  unless of course we all trust him…

But we should have known – after all we are repeatedly told – that there is no such thing as privacy in the modern world, as Judy Kuszewski’s blog points out. Yet at least we know what the private sector does with our data, sort of.

In the end all we really know is that whenever a few of us are gathered together, it is just you, me and the NSA.


Horse-riding lessons

How can you supply horsemeat responsibly?

The UK has a long history of food scares and scandals – think mad cow disease, salmonella and listeria. But the horsemeat affair is on a different scale and appears to involve a significant part of the European meat supply chain. It also goes beyond health, raising several important issues. The most important being about transparency: processed meat foods do not necessarily contain what it says on the label. And you have to wonder whether the non-processed cuts of meat are what they are sold as.

This has real implications for corporate responsibility. Last year Tesco donated £74.5m to charitable causes at the same time as its lengthy supply chain was compromised. Yet corporate responsibility should begin with core operations rather than charity – and there is little more core than a functioning supply chain. Yet after 20 years of outsourcing, companies in a number of sectors are being forced to realise that responsibility cannot be outsourced. The retailers involved in the horsemeat affair are doubtless considering legal action against their suppliers – all the way down to the abattoirs. Yet even if it is proved that it is all the fault of one party in the supply chain, that will do almost nothing to restore the retailers’ reputations with the public back home.

The main lesson seems to be that the complexity of modern supply chains means that a universal traceability system is essential. And it clearly needs to be more robust than that currently in place for meat supply, even if the reason the supply train has broken down is due to retailers piling on the pressure.

A further lesson for all of us, retailers included, might be: ‘buy local’. Those retailers that source primarily within the UK such as Morrisons and the Co-Op, seem less vulnerable. At least for their own-brand products and particularly where they retain a vertical structure and own their own farms.


The UK is not on the Pacific rim – but it could soon be…

The USA and countries on the Pacific rim are negotiating a new trade agreement under conditions of great secrecy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) seems to favour trade interests above those of national governments. There are numerous problems with the intent of the TPP from giving up democratic rights to a non-democratic body to lowering sustainability standards. It will, in effect, be like those state-investor agreements under which governments agree to compensate companies if improved environmental or social regulation hurts their profits – but on a larger scale.

And while the public is excluded from the negotiations, companies are probably at the table. According to the Guardian “The top executives at General Electric, Goldman Sachs, and Pfizer probably all have drafts of the relevant sections of the TPP. However, the members of the relevant [US] congressional committees have not yet been told what is being negotiated.”

But what has the fate of Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the USA got to do with the UK?  (Apart from the injustice.) Well it seems that the TPP is intended to be open to any country to sign up to, including the UK.


Will Wikileaks spin free?

Should we judge the man or the issue?

The issues raised by Wikileaks are many and tangled. There is one set which is about transparency, whistleblowing and access to information. Those against transparency, often in the security services, cite arguments about the potential damage that knowing the truth could entail. Could it? Unfortunately we will never be able to know because the security services also say they do not want the whole truth to be revealed.

Then there is the set of issues about the sexual allegations against Julian Assange. Again it is difficult to know how much truth there is in these – partly because Assange himself will not submit to the Swedish legal process.

Suppose that the Swedish allegations are well-founded. How does that affect the transparency issues? It doesn’t. Does immoral behaviour in one area of life wholly discredit everything else that that person does? It doesn’t. Does delivering transparency automatically excuse sexual harassment? It doesn’t. But neither does one failing condemn everything that person has done.

So should we judge the man or the issue? Maybe we should judge both. But we should not let those judgements influence each other.

What about the corporate sector role in all this? Outside the media, this mainly seems to concern the financial sector which has joined forces through membership organisations such as Visa to deny Wikileaks its payment services.  The best that can be said is that they started this blockade before the sexual allegations emerged. But why? Visa has issued no press releases on the topic.

And it does seem odd that the financial sector, which really hasn’t done it’s best to position itself as the world’s moral arbiter in recent years, should take this role upon itself.


What went wrong at Rio?

How did it happen that Rio+20 is universally seen as a failure? The best that can be said is that it was a disappointment. And Greenpeace’s view of the agreement is vitriolic:

“Gone from the Rio agreement is a commitment to end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. Gone is any clear commitment to protect our oceans from over-fishing and pollution. The money needed to pay for clean energy, and to ensure that the growing world population has access to decent food and clean water, is no-where to be seen. Again, our leaders have reminded us that whilst cash can be found to pursue wars and to rescue banks, nothing is left to help billions of people out of poverty or protect the ecosystems upon which human life ultimately depends.”

The most interesting explanation comes from Gro Harlem Brundtland, who agreed with the suggestion of the BBC that the power of corporations was a key part of the problem. But so little transparency is there over how corporations lobby that we don’t even know who lobbied whom – let alone what they said.


Lobbying: forked tongues in action

Global Witness has pointed out that some companies are lobbying both for and against dealing with conflict minerals.

While some companies that use minerals such as tanatalum and tungsten are working within industry bodies to implement the US Dodd Frank Act requirement for supply chain audit for conflict minerals from West Africa, others in industry bodies, such as the US Chamber of Commerce, appear to be doing the reverse. And even worse, some companies belong to both industry groups.

Does such apparent duplicity result from ignorance or conspiracy? In other words, is one department busy trying to improve matters while another is pushing commercial interests for all its worth? Or is it a result of a cynical attempt to generate confusion, so that the company can do what it wants unnoticed?

Neither explanation is very palatable for the companies concerned. But from the public point of view, I would rather it was ignorance – conspiracy is so much harder to deal with.


Pay and bonuses: we need to know more

In Norway, the income and tax paid by every citizen is on the web. Perhaps the UK isn’t quite ready for the Norwegian system, but how can there be a proper debate about pay, tax and bonuses if we don’t know what anyone gets?

We now know that Network Rail bosses are not taking their bonus. And we know that Goldman Sachs bankers are said to get £1/4m on average. Shouldn’t we also know at least the ratio of highest compensation to lowest compensation (and to the average) within any organisation? The Network Rail Sustainability Report does not mention the issue of pay, except to talk about how much its staff are giving to charity as if Network Rail had given it.

We should start with this kind of transparency for all organisations in which the state has a controlling stake. Isn’t this one of the things that being a stakeholder is supposed to be all about?


Nothing is certain but death and taxes…

Unless you are a company, when it is all up for grabs…

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has challenged HM Revenue and Customs to come clean in its dealings with them. In the view of the Chair of the Committee, confidentiality should not be used as a cloak for companies. Whether this is evasion or avoidance by the Revenue, it challenges the supremacy of parliament and seriously threatens democracy.

Meanwhile UK Uncut is trying to take HMRC to court for getting into bed with the very companies from which it is trying to extract tax.

In part it is the complexity of the tax regime that is to blame. One solution, proposed by conservatives, is for a flat rate tax. For individuals this becomes regressive, so that the poor are more badly affected than those with money. But for companies, the same system would be far more progressive than the current arrangement, in which the large pay far less than the small.


Shredding Reputations

How should the media be regulated?

The painful accounts of intrusion into private lives by the newspapers that the Leveson Inquiry has revealed should provoke some government reaction. Is there a danger that ‘good’ journalism will be regulated away in some fashion in the name of protecting privacy? Will some instances of bad behaviour by those who should know better be missed if privacy is protected? Probably. But it seems a price worth paying. And of course most ‘good journalism’ does not involve exposing salacious details of people’s lives.

I believe transparency is a good thing – but only until it does harm. The harrassment that goes with exposing private lives to the public very rarely has any justification, except to those who profit from it.

The key to any useful regulation of the media is to distinguish properly between what the public is interested in and what is in the public interest. The former should always be trumped by privacy; sometimes the latter should not.


CSR's importance is underlined by the NoW hacking scandal


News International closed the News of the World last week. The tabloid never published a social report and had no social capital to fall back on.

Here is my Guardian blog post on the matter. but please post any comments here, as the Guardian, for legal reasons, is not opening the post to comments…