My sense of humour failure over "woman on the left"

Why didn't I find the Twitter flutter as entertaining as everyone else?

Do I have meme fatigue? Have I become unbearably pious? Have I just lost my sense of humour?

Yesterday afternoon, Twitter was in paroxysms of delight over a lawyer at the Leveson Inquiry, who was supposedly "flirting" with Hugh Grant as he gave his evidence. Sitting to the left of the counsel for the inquiry, she was swiftly christened "#womanontheleft" and the witticisms began to flow.

So far, so Twitter. I didn't really see it, myself, but I'm at least self-aware enough to understand that sometimes other people find things funny that I don't, and that doesn't necessarily mean that they're bad people, or that I possess a superior sense of comedy to them.

But then it got a bit weird. Someone found out her name. Someone else posted a link to her profile at the chambers where she works. Someone, with the deadening inevitability of a joke about Gazza, chicken and fishing rods, photoshopped her into a scene from one of Grant's films.

Poor woman, I thought. She spent years training as a lawyer and now all anyone thinks is that she's a dippy bint mooning over a famous actor. But, following my newly minted "Liz Jones" policy, I thought: ignore it. Engaging is just adding to the problem. It'll be a one-day wonder.

Only then, something awful happened. Sky News ran a "news story" about her. Yes, a news story. About a Twitter trend. (Full credit to them for trying to dance around the irony of this level of exposure happening to someone at an inquiry into privacy by straight-on reporting it, though). She also got a mention as a "woman lawyer" - because you know, lawyer is a male noun - by Michael White in the Guardian. The paper also ran a panel on page 15 of the paper on her.

The thing that really gets me about this whole kerfuffle is that the male lawyers involved were FAR more swoony over Grant. Watch the first few minutes of the afternoon session yesterday, as the counsel to the inquiry, Richard Jay, tells the actor:

"Everybody, of course, probably knows all about your career, but you made it big, if I can so describe it, with a film in 1994, "Four Weddings and a Funeral", but although you don't say so yourself, you did rather well, I think, with another film which some of us enjoyed in 1987 called "Maurice", so it wasn't as if it's a one-off. You career then took off thereafter."

Puh-lease. It was excruciating to watch.

Still, perhaps I'm being, as fellow NS blogger (and generally sensible type) Guy Walters suggested, a bit pious about all this. Maybe a male lawyer will be memed to death for gazing dreamily at Sienna Miller later in the week. In the meantime, the "woman on the left" was back in the Inquiry room this morning, quizzing Garry Flitcroft. Good on her.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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7 problems with the Snooper’s Charter, according to the experts

In short: it was written by people who "do not know how the internet works".

A group of representatives from the UK Internet Service Provider’s Association (ISPA) headed to the Home Office on Tuesday to point out a long list of problems they had with the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill (that’s Snooper’s Charter to you and me). Below are simplified summaries of their main points, taken from the written evidence submitted by Adrian Kennard, of Andrews and Arnold, a small ISP, to the department after the meeting. 

The crucial thing to note is that these people know what they're talking about - the run the providers which would need to completely change their practices to comply with the bill if it passed into law. And their objections aren't based on cost or fiddliness - they're about how unworkable many of the bill's stipulations actually are. 

1. The types of records the government wants collected aren’t that useful

The IP Bill places a lot of emphasis on “Internet Connection Records”; i.e. a list of domains you’ve visited, but not the specific pages visited or messages sent.

But in an age of apps and social media, where we view vast amounts of information through single domains like Twitter or Facebook, this information might not even help investigators much, as connections can last for days, or even months. Kennard gives the example of a missing girl, used as a hypothetical case by the security services to argue for greater powers:

 "If the mobile provider was even able to tell that she had used twitter at all (which is not as easy as it sounds), it would show that the phone had been connected to twitter 24 hours a day, and probably Facebook as well… this emotive example is seriously flawed”

And these connection records are only going to get less relevant over time - an increasing number of websites including Facebook and Google encrypt their website under "https", which would make finding the name of the website visited far more difficult.

2. …but they’re still a massive invasion of privacy

Even though these records may be useless when someone needs to be found or monitored, the retention of Internet Connection Records (IRCs) is still very invasive – and can actually yield more information than call records, which Theresa May has repeatedly claimed are the non-digital equivalent of ICRs. 

Kennard notes: “[These records] can be used to profile them and identify preferences, political views, sexual orientation, spending habits and much more. It is useful to criminals as it would easily confirm the bank used, and the time people leave the house, and so on”. 

This information might not help find a missing girl, but could build a profile of her which could be used by criminals, or for over-invasive state surveillance. 

3. "Internet Connection Records" aren’t actually a thing

The concept of a list of domain names visited by a user referred to in the bill is actually a new term, derived from “Call Data Record”. Compiling them is possible, but won't be an easy or automatic process.

Again, this strongly implies that those writing the bill are using their knowledge of telecommunications surveillance, not internet era-appropriate information. Kennard calls for the term to be removed, or at least its “vague and nondescript nature” made clear in the bill.

4. The surveillance won’t be consistent and could be easy to dodge

In its meeting with the ISPA, the Home Office implied that smaller Internet service providers won't be forced to collect these ICR records, as it would use up a lot of their resources. But this means those seeking to avoid surveillance could simply move over to a smaller provider.

5. Conservative spin is dictating the way we view the bill 

May and the Home Office are keen for us to see the surveillance in the bill as passive: internet service providers must simply log the domains we visit, which will be looked at in the event that we are the subject of an investigation. But as Kennard notes, “I am quite sure the same argument would not work if, for example, the law required a camera in every room in your house”. This is a vast new power the government is asking for – we shouldn’t allow it to play it down.

6. The bill would allow our devices to be bugged

Or, in the jargon, used in the draft bill, subjected to “equipment interference”. This could include surveillance of everything on a phone or laptop, or even turning on its camera or webcam to watch someone. The bill actually calls for “bulk equipment interference” – when surely, as Kennard notes, “this power…should only be targeted at the most serious of criminal suspects" at most.

7. The ability to bug devices would make them less secure

Devices can only be subject to “equipment interference” if they have existing vulnerabilities, which could also be exploited by criminals and hackers. If security services know about these vulnerabilities, they should tell the manufacturer about them. As Kennard writes, allowing equipment interference "encourages the intelligence services to keep vulnerabilities secret” so they don't lose surveillance methods. Meanwhile, though, they're laying the population open to hacks from cyber criminals. 


So there you have it  – a compelling soup of misused and made up terms, and ethically concerning new powers. Great stuff. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.