The Samovar

Some sense on terrorism
February 11, 2009, 1:46 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics, Terrorism

Reg article reporting on Nigel Inkster, former Assistant Chief of MI6:

There are limits to what we can sensibly aspire to…

Efforts to establish a global repository of counterterrorist information are unlikely ever to succeed. We need to be wary of rebuilding our world to deal with just one problem, one which might not be by any means the most serious we face.

We need to keep terrorism in some kind of context, for example, every year in the UK, more people die in road accidents than have been killed by terrorists in all of recorded history.

We should keep our nerve and our faith in our own values. Our own behaviour – especially with respect to the rule of law – is very important.

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Today’s surveillance society news
October 23, 2007, 2:04 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics, Surveillance Society | Tags: , ,

From The Register:

Schoolkid chipping trial ‘a success’

A school in Doncaster is piloting a monitoring system designed to keep tabs on pupils by tracking radio chips in their uniforms.

According to the Doncaster Free Press, Hungerhill School is testing RFID tracking and data collection on 10 pupils within the school. It’s been developed by local company Darnbro Ltd, which says it is ready to launch the product into the £300m school uniform market.

Hungerhill headteacher Graham Wakeling said the pilot was “not intrusive to the pupil in the slightest.”

Cops and Home Office plot uber-CCTV network

Near-real-time use of nationwide CCTV may not be an option now, but the government would like it to be. The two main requirements, of course, would be a central database of every camera and a network allowing access to it from elsewhere than a local control room, shop till etc. Consider these repetitious grumbles from the report:

The [Data Protection Act] does not require CCTV systems to be registered – this is considered to be at the heart of all the problems…No effective systems for registration of CCTV are in place…

[There is] no central register of CCTV systems nationwide…

The answer?

A system of registration is needed and an initial step towards this would be to create a database listing all CCTV schemes. Such a database would provide information such as location of cameras, their coverage…

Bingo. Step one to a real Bourne-style panopticon. And:

Only in a few of the more recent installations is there remote access… on almost every occasion where police need to view CCTV material, they first have to attend the venue… This is all prior to assessing if the CCTV has even captured the event…

This is assumed to be bad. Again, the top cops have plans:

The delays and difficulties outlined above need not arise if the live and stored CCTV systems were networked and the CCTV material was easily accessible… Consideration needs to be given to the expansion of the networks to include CCTV from shopping centres, transport and commercial CCTV schemes.

There’s even a note about plugging in the cams in the corner shop – strictly with the owner’s permission of course. And it comes with the admission that:

Security, access and audit trails need to be stringent and continuing management scrutiny of the security, access and audit trails will be essential.

No shit. This is actually worse than what Jason Bourne has to put up with, as the spooks would one day have no need to know where he was to start following him on camera. Rather, the second he drove the wrong car, used the wrong credit card – or maybe even just took down the top of his hoodie – ding! Nearby cams would swivel round and he would be followed in real time until the cold steel bracelets snapped shut on his wrists.

Honest, that’s the plan:

In future, as technology is developed… such a network will allow the use of automated search techniques (i.e. face recognition) and can be integrated with other systems such as ANPR, and police despatch systems… [there might also be links of] transport system cameras to travel cards [and] shop cameras to Electronic Point of Sale (EPOS) systems… actions can be triggered by associated events and post event CCTV images can be quickly searched against other events/data…

Insurance (and the ruthlessness of capitalism)
September 20, 2007, 11:11 pm
Filed under: Capitalism, Economics, Manifesto, Politics, Risk, Surveillance Society

Insurance. Not the most exciting of blog subjects, although that hasn’t stopped Michael Moore’s film Sicko from making $24m in the US alone. It is a subject that fascinates me though, for the simple reason that I don’t understand why people get insurance most of the time.

The nature of insurance is that on average you lose money by having it. It’s essentially just a gamble, and the bookie always weighs the odds against you. Now, there is a real reason to have insurance, which is in the case where you can’t afford the cost if the unlikely thing happens. Insuring your house against being burnt down is a good example of this. Most people can’t afford to rebuild their house from scratch if it gets burnt down.

The other end of the spectrum struck me when I bought a mobile phone a while ago. The salesman tried to persuade me to get insurance for it. Now, the insurance was £20 for one year, which on the face of it seems a fairly minimal cost for the satisfaction of knowing that if your phone is stolen you will get a nice new one. However, the phone only cost me £60, so for it to be worth my while getting that insurance, I’d have to have a 1/3 chance or more of losing that phone during the next year. Obviously a bad gamble. I didn’t get the insurance, and 5 years later the phone is still in my possession. Score £100 for me.

That mobile phone salesman made me realise that insurance is almost never worth having, because the consequences of a loss rarely justify the amount you end up spending on all the different forms of insurance. Take cars for instance. Now, you are legally obliged to have third party insurance, but anything beyond that is a total scam. If your car is stolen, you can buy a cheap replacement for a few hundred pounds. It won’t be flashy, but it will be functional. A few hundred pounds is often less than a single year’s insurance. Comprehensive insurance is even more of a scam, because you either have to have an enormous excess (which means you end up paying for most of the repairs yourself anyway), or you pay enormously high premiums. It gets more complicated, but the basic facts don’t change once you get into the arcanae of no claims bonuses, insuring your no claims bonuses, and the fact that even having insured your no claims bonuses making a claim will affect your premiums anyway. These points struck home with me when an old car of mine was stolen, and I realised (too late) that claiming for it was going to end up costing me more in increased premiums over the next few years than the amount they were paying out – by quite a lot.

So when is it worth having? Well, it’s worth having if you really can’t cover the costs of something going wrong: i.e. basically house insurance (but possibly not contents insurance), and, in the US, medical insurance. That brings me neatly on to my next point. I just saw Sicko the other day (recommended), and one of the points it makes very well is that US medical insurers will do anything they can to avoid paying out. In the event of an expensive claim (exactly the sort of claim that justifies having medical insurance in the first place), they will investigate everything about your claim. If you have ever said anything untruthful or inaccurate on an application form or on the phone to them, that will void your claim. If they can manage to persuade a doctor to rule that the treatment is too experimental or not guaranteed to work, they won’t pay out. And to ensure that they can persuade doctors to make these rulings, they pay bonuses to doctors proportionate to how many claims they reject. In other words, even when insurance really does matter (and with medical bills often in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in the US, it really matters) it might end up having been money wasted.

Now, finally I’d like to twist this into a rant about capitalism in general, because, you know, I like to rant about capitalism. It’s my thing.

This story about insurance being essentially a scam, an enormous rip off, and one that disproportionately affects the poorest, is a sort of microcosm of the ruthlessness of capitalism. Because poorer people can’t cover losses as much as richer people, they are more in need of insurance. Perversely, this means that they end up (quite rationally) spending more of their money on insurance than wealthier people.

A more recent development is social sorting, where poor people actually get larger premiums or bills precisely because they are poor. I’ve written about this before, here, here and here. This sort of thing just underlines the fact that the nature of capitalism is that the poor get poorer, and the rich get richer. Now, this has always been true of capitalism, but for a while it was masked. The introduction of the NHS and the welfare state in Britain made capitalism slightly more humane, but it is being undermined, even though the NHS and the welfare state still exist, because of social sorting.

The problem is that as companies know more and more about us, they can extract money from us ever more efficiently. Not only can they do this, but in a competitive market they must do it if they can, because otherwise someone else will. Exploitation of every source of profit isn’t a choice for a capitalist in a competitive free market, it’s a basic necessity. So, assuming that it is profitable for a company to, say, offer cheaper insurance to “intelligent” people, they will all have to start doing it. The logic of capitalism then undermines many of what we think of as social goods. We think it is bad that smart people should be given cheaper insurance than others, because it’s not fair, and also because smart people probably have more money; we think it’s bad that poor people should pay more for the same thing than rich people, but that’s not what’s going to happen because it doesn’t fit in with profit seeking.

Finally, to go back to insurance, the consequence of insurance companies having ever more accurate information about us, and being ever better at evaluating our individual risk levels, is that it becomes self defeating. If you can predict entirely accurately who is going to have a heart attack, then there cannot be medical insurance against having heart attacks. Someone who isn’t going to have one won’t pay because he isn’t going to have one, and someone who is going to have one is going to have to pay anyway so why bother giving extra money to the middle man. Insurance companies have to get better and better at predicting this sort of thing to stay profitable, but by doing so they bring about their own demise.

In this situation, the only thing to do is to have national insurance schemes organised by the state. The purpose is not to spread your own risk (you can’t change who you are, or your congenital risk of heart attack for example), but to spread the good and bad fortune of our circumstances out amongst everyone. In other words, in the long term, effective insurance cannot be provided by a capitalist system, and the alternatives available to us are ruthless capitalism which by its internal logic must get more and more ruthless to stay profitable, or some sort of socialism.

If you have got this far, well done, I’m impressed! and I thank you. Please do write a comment, if only to say you made it to the end. 😉

“It’s a community urinalysis”
August 28, 2007, 11:45 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics, Surveillance Society

This raises some interesting questions about government power and privacy (via Bruce Schneier):

Researchers have figured out how to give an entire community a drug test using just a teaspoon of wastewater from a city’s sewer plant.

The test wouldn’t be used to finger any single person as a drug user. But it would help federal law enforcement and other agencies track the spread of dangerous drugs, like methamphetamines, across the country.

Giddens: more rhetoric
July 21, 2007, 2:14 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics, Risk, Security, Surveillance Society, Terrorism

A while ago, Anthony Giddens wrote a piece on terrorism and security that I replied to rather light heartedly. Others wrote more serious replies – see my previous entry for links. Today he wrote a rather odd piece on CiF replying to comments on his last “dozen or so articles”. Obviously since he was replying to so much, his comments were little more than a reaffirmation of what he’d already said, but for what it’s worth, here’s my reply to what he said about terrorism and security.

Whatever some of the bloggers want, Brown won’t commit electoral suicide by lurching towards the traditional left. Moreover, he is correct not to do so.

It’s worth pointing out that terrorism and security is not a left/right political issue. Authoritarians and civil libertarians exist at all points on the left/right spectrum. This is just misdirection – a complete red herring.

For instance, he owes it to citizens to make sure that they are protected against the threat posed by global terrorism. As I said in my article on the subject – written well before the latest attacks…

I love it. As if the fact that some utterly hopeless incompetents entirely failed to carry out what would have been a rare terrorist attack with a fairly small number of casualties (a few days worth of traffic fatalities at most) supported his argument. As if one could draw conclusions about risk and probability from a singular event.

– the debate about security in relation to civil liberties hangs a great deal upon how serious one believes the threat actually is.

At first when reading this I thought it was odd that he understands that the case must be based on the actual threat given that his argument was based on hypothesis and supposition, but then I look a closer look at the words he used. “The debate,” he says, “depends upon on how serious one believes the threat actually is” – not on how serious it actually is, or on the basis of evidence, but on the basis of belief.

It has to be analysed in terms of risk, a subject of some complexity, which I have studied in detail for many years.

Yessss!! I love it when they use appeal to authority. It’s especially delicious when their own argument undermines that authority (“written well before the latest attacks”).

Most of the blogs on this issue were hostile to what I said, but I stand by it. Taking high-consequence risks seriously,

But they’re not high-consequence risks. The largest terrorist attack ever killed under 3000 people. That’s no joke, but as I point out again and again, it’s absolutely tiny in comparison to so many other risks we face.

and mobilising against them, are the conditions of reducing them to manageable proportions, whether they be those associated with global warming, avian flu, world financial meltdown or international terrorism. The more seriously we take each issue, the less chance there is of a destructive outcome; but then those who disagreed with the policy in the first place will always say: “You were scaring us unnecessarily – look, nothing significant has happened.”

It is entirely right that the issue of civil freedoms should continue to be intensely debated. The level of risk should be monitored in a continuing way. One contributor asks, what will happen to freedoms that have been in some part suspended when the threat of terrorism recedes?

I would also add that the threat – such as it is – isn’t going to recede for a very long time, so we should take note that changes to our society based on the threat of terrorism have to be considered semi-permanent.

It is a very necessary question. There must be regular reports made to parliament, which can be scrutinised in detail; an independent role for the judiciary in making judgments has to be sustained; public debate must continue. How far anti-terrorist policies might produce an Orwellian state is itself a matter of risk assessment;

Certainly, if one is going to give the government and police powers which could be abused there should be independent scrutiny to minimise the dangers. The point is that when the state itself is the potential threat, you can’t rely on it to make reports to itself and supervise itself. The effectiveness of an independent method of scrutiny depends very much on the precise details of who exactly is doing it, what their relation to those in power is, what powers they have to investigate and overrule state decisions, etc. Can the judiciary be relied on for this sort of role? I’m not sure one way or the other. Either way, a better way of minimising the risk of abuse of powers is to not grant those powers in the first place, and to put practical obstacles in their way so that future governments cannot give themselves greater powers. Not building a surveillance infrastructure would be a good start.

but such procedures, robustly applied, will keep such an eventuality as the remotest of possibilities.

The remotest of possibilities? How remote is this possibility compared to say, the threat of an effective nuclear, biological or chemical weapons based terrorist attack upon which he based the entirety of his original argument? Presumably he thinks it’s much more remote, but what is the basis of this claim? While there have been no examples of successful such attacks despite much will to use them, there have been plenty of examples of governments that have turned bad based on manipulating the fears of the governed.

That some contributors talk as though such a state is already here, while dismissing new-style terrorism as offering no significant threat, strikes me as absurd.

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Function creep: surveillance in London
July 17, 2007, 1:42 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, ID Cards, Politics, Security, Surveillance Society, Terrorism

Function creep is a very useful concept for understanding government and surveillance. When a new technology is introduced to do one thing (one function), and is later used for an entirely different thing, that’s function creep. It often seems as though governments plan to bring in potentially unpopular technologies by exploiting function creep. It goes like this: the government wants to do X where X requires some new and expensive technology Y. Unfortunately for them, X is fairly unpopular and if everyone knows that they’re spending money on Y in order to do X then there’ll be a huge fuss about it in the papers. So what they do is invent a new and popular thing Z that also requires the technology Y. When they’re building Y they say it’s for Z, but all the time they have in the back of their mind that they’ll introduce X later on.

Function creep is one reason why civil liberties campaigners are so worried about ID cards. The government plans to introduce them as a non-compulsory thing which will only be used in ways that are useful to most people, or for purposes that are popular (like being nasty to immigrants, or catching terrorists). It won’t actually do those things effectively, but that doesn’t matter because that’s not what they’re really for. It’s really there to build a large database on everyone to make the job of the civil service and police that much easier, and it may also undergo function creep in the future to make it compulsory to have one, and maybe later than that to make it compulsory to always carry it, etc.

Today the BBC reports an interesting example of function creep in London.

Police are to be given live access to London’s congestion charge cameras – allowing them to track all vehicles entering and leaving the zone.

The reason given is terrorism:

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith blamed the “enduring vehicle-borne terrorist threat to London” for the change.

There is function creep going on at many levels here. The first is that an infrastructure of cameras built to help manage congestion in London is now going to be used for routine surveillance by the police. Would we have agreed to a network of cameras being built in order to spy on us all the time? Almost certainly not, but they can just apply function creep to a system that’s already there. In this case, it was almost certainly opportunistic rather than planned function creep.

There’s also a hint as to some planned function creep:

But they will only be able to use the data for national security purposes and not to fight ordinary crime, the Home Office stressed.

In other words: don’t complain about this on civil liberties grounds, we’re only going to use it on terrorists. For the moment.

This is suspect for two reasons. First of all, they might change their minds about it in the future. Alarm bells should be going off when they reassure us it won’t be used to fight ordinary crime, given that the actual dangers associated to ordinary crime are so much larger than the negligible threat of terrorism. Secondly, because they’re already using terrorism laws in ordinary police work:

Since 2001, some 436 people have been charged in relation to terrorism investigations. Almost 200 of these were under standard criminal offences such as conspiracy to murder.

And let’s not forget Walter Wolfgang, the Labour party member who was kicked out of the party conference and detained under anti-terrorism legislation for shouting the word “Nonsense!”.

To finish off with, the article also makes a passing reference to an earlier function creep:

Although charges are only in force at peak times, the system runs 24 hours a day, a TfL spokesman said.

In other words, the system was already being used as a de facto surveillance infrastructure – running when it had absolutely no need to in order to carry out its stated and original function.

Update (18 July 2007): And for anyone who thought I was being paranoid, only one day later plans to extend this scheme nationwide for use in fighting ordinary crime were leaked to the Guardian. SpyBlog has more in depth coverage.

July 11, 2007, 3:31 am
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics

We’ve had Brown as PM for a bit now, what do we think so far? What can we expect? My impressions so far are mostly bad but not all bad. On the good side, he seems more intelligent than Blair for one thing, and he’s at least making some good noises on constitutional reform and civil liberties (amongst some bad ones too). On the bad side, he’s still a right-winger and a technocrat.

In more detail.

I never really believed that Blair was intelligent. I know he went to Oxford and all that, but I’m sure plenty of dim people found their way there. I don’t really believe it, but he came across as sufficiently dim that it was almost possible he really thought he was doing the right thing in Iraq. Brown surely knew it wasn’t and supported it anyway. That makes him possibly an even more frightening prospect. On the other hand, all things being equal I’d probably prefer someone competent in charge than an idiot. (Is that true if their ideology is basically wrong I wonder?)

Brown’s decision to reconsider the ban on protest outside parliament has led Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty and Henry Porter both to say some good things about Brown on civil liberties. They both also have some bad things to say on the same subject. SpyBlog isn’t convinced and nor is Chris Marsden, and both for good reasons. My feeling is we’re going to have more of the same, possibly not with quite the intensity of the Blair years, and some gestures towards liberty. We’ll have to see though.

Tony Benn and Henry Porter have both written cautiously optimistic things about Brown’s statements on constitutional reform. On the other hand, I find myself somewhat agreeing with Julie Hyland’s view that these amount to “largely cosmetic changes”. Despite that, there are some potentially good and democratic things in there: giving power back to parliament; the possibility of lowering the voting age, and of participatory budgeting.

Democracy is a tricky point for Brown though, because he is clearly a technocrat, and technocracy is at odds with democracy. He believes that in politics there is a correct thing to do, and that good politics is about finding out what that is and doing it. This is the New Labour “what works” concept, the idea that there is no ideological component to politics, just the correct management of affairs. The problem is that this is just wrong. There is an ideological component, and pretending there isn’t is just a cover for your ideology.

Take the PFI/PPP schemes for example. These were sold as doing “what works” because companies are more efficient than the state. The problem with this is that the mechanism which makes companies efficient is the free market and the fact that companies that aren’t efficient go out of business, and not something intrinsic about organisations that aren’t run by the state. Most PFI/PPP schemes didn’t involve a market, the risks were underwritten by the state and the profits were given to the companies. What was sold as “what works” was actually an ideological commitment to private enterprise that amounted to a transfer of wealth to the private sector, and in many cases ended up costing considerably more and working less well than when it was in the public sector.

Technocracy is anti-democratic because it pretends that there are no specifically political problems, that is, that there are no conflicts of interest. People can plainly see this isn’t the case, and it makes participating in the democratic process seem rather worthless. This must in part account for the fact that between 1997 and 2005, New Labour lost 3.9m votes. In contrast, between the 1974 and 1979 elections, the Labour party actually gained votes (albeit much less than the Tories). In the 2005 elections, New Labour got less votes than the Tories did in 1997 (but obviously still more than they did in 2005).

The biggest cover-up of New Labour though is very much to do with Brown, that the party is now a right wing party. Lenin’s Tomb explains with precision:

Brown brought Digby fucking Jones into the government to be a trade minister. That’s right, the union-bashing, war-supporting, pensions-busting, right-wing former tub-thumping tub of lard for the CBI. He isn’t a member of the Labour Party, doesn’t support it, and has often led the charge against it from the right.

As far as I can see, on the basis of the last 10 years of government, there’s no reason to expect Brown to cease being a right-winger, nor to give up his technocratic tendencies. This weakens any claims he might make about democratic reforms, and should make us wary. It’s not impossible though that he might be better than Blair.

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The past few days
July 3, 2007, 12:17 am
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics, Risk, Terrorism

I’ve been away which is why I haven’t written anything about terrorism. I don’t like to blow my own trumpet (OK I do), but I’d just like to point out that on June 15th I wrote:

… This suggests that the number of willing would-be terrorists is actually fairly small, or that they are generally incompetent.

The recent technically incompetent and hopelessly executed attempt at a terrorist attack bears this theory out:

Earlier reports said bouncers from a nearby nightclub saw the car being driven erratically before it crashed into a bin. They claimed the driver then got out and ran off.

In case these attacks are used to justify further incursions on civil liberties, it’s worth pointing out that these people were wholly unknown to the police, that increased detention without trial or other similar powers would not have been useful in stopping them, etc. In other words, existing powers were more than sufficient.

Fortunately, it seems that most people are not giving this attack undue significance. Leninology notes that BBC News 24 were using the phrase “terror fatigue” to describe people’s lack of reaction. Well… at last!

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The surveillance society progresses
June 19, 2007, 2:06 pm
Filed under: Politics, Surveillance Society

The Beeb reports that:

A financial services firm in Japan has begun offering lower mortgage interest rates to “intelligent” customers.

This is somewhat similar to a story about water companies in Northern Ireland planning to give people with bad credit ratings less time to pay their bills.

For more on the “social sorting”, inequality and the long term dangers of this sort of thing, read my entry on the Surveillance Society.

Update: Bruce Schneier posts a story about how the NSF have awarded a grant to a company to research how to use Google maps photography to spy on our houses, for example to tell whether or not we have a pool (I guess that’s more realistic in the US than over here), and tie that in with other information marketers have on us. We need to be thinking more about the effect this sort of thing is going to have.

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Overactive imagination: Giddens on risk
June 19, 2007, 1:44 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics, Risk, Security, Terrorism

Anthony Giddens has a piece on CiF explaining that we need to crack down on freedom because of the danger of nuclear terrorism. It’s funny and kind of gratifying that this should appear just a couple of days after I posted a long piece arguing the exact opposite. Unusually, the CiF commenters do a fine job of demolishing his argument – to my amazement there didn’t seem to be a single one supporting him.

What’s nice about this piece though is that he explicitly makes all the mistaken arguments rather than concealing the foolishness of his argument.

First, it cannot be known in advance with certainty how great the risk really is. Second, the consequences are potentially cataclysmic, so we have to bend our efforts to preventing them, rather than picking up the damage afterwards. Third, how we respond to the risk – how seriously we take it – affects the very nature of that risk.

I wonder if he’s familiar with Pascal’s wager? This is the argument that says:

  1. There is a non-zero probability that God exists, call this probability p.
  2. If God exists and we believe in Him the rewards are infinite, \infty.
  3. If God exists and we don’t believe in Him, the punishment is infinite, \infty.
  4. If God doesn’t exist and we believe in Him, the reward is zero, and the cost of the belief is finite, call it C.
  5. If God doesn’t exist and we don’t believe in Him, the rewards and costs are zero.
  6. Consequently, on average, your expected reward-cost for believing in God is p\infty-(1-p)C=\infty (because \infty*something non-zero is \infty, and the cost C is finite).
  7. On average, your expected reward-cost for not-believing in God is -p*\infty=-\infty.
  8. Therefore, on the basis of cost-benefit analysis, we should opt to believe in God.

One problem with this wager is that it misses out on the question of which God to believe in. I can hypothesise an infinite number of different possible Gods, each of whom will infinitely punish you if you believe in any of the other ones. So which God do you opt for? Oh nyoe! We’re all doooomed.

And so, I invite readers to imagine other creative disasters we should be worrying about, and what we should be doing about them. I’ll start:

There is a danger that particle accelerators might produce a rogue particle that could destroy all matter in the universe. The chance is low, but the consequences would be infinitely disastrous. Hence, we should shut down all particle accelerators, cancel all teaching of physics, and what they hey, lock up or execute anyone with any knowledge of particle physics.

Update: Unity has a (long) post on this too, as does UK Liberty. Also, some of the CiF commenters came up with the same game as me. Suggestions so far include the threat of alien invasion and how we all should join the army and learn firearms for when it happens; and more pertinently (but less funny), the threat of a future government turning fascist, and how we should therefore not undermine civil liberties. Another person pointed out – if you really take the threat of nuclear terrorism destroying our civilisation seriously, we ought to be teaching people how to survive in a post-nuclear-holocaust society. Unless you think that new terror powers are almost certain to stop the terrorist nuclear bombs, you should consider this as just as high priority.