Abortion provider BPAS under attack from hackers

Following the arrest of a hacker who planned to publish women's details, there have been 2,500 attem

Last week, a 27 year old man was jailed for stealing the personal details of 10,000 women from Britain’s largest pregnancy advisory clinic.

James Jeffery, a member of the hacking collective Anonymous, planned to publish the names, email addresses and telephone numbers of these women, which he took from the website of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail at Southwark Crown Court.

But the risk to BPAS is far from removed. Indeed, the BBC reports this morning that in the five weeks since Jeffery’s arrest, a mind-boggling 2,500 attempts have been made to hack into the advisory service's computer systems.

As yet, none of these attempts have been successful, and BPAS has reassured women that their details are safe. But this is a seriously worrying development. Around 60,000 women contact BPAS each year, and 53,000 have abortions under their supervision. Their privacy is paramount. Sentencing Jeffery, Judge Malcolm Gledhill spoke of the potentially “terrible consequences” of the women's details being published:

Many of them were vulnerable women, vulnerable simply because they had had a termination or because of their youth or because their family did not know about their situation.

That is quite apart from the risk to their personal safety from anti-abortion activists.

So where are these latest hacking attempts coming from? It is difficult to say. The IP addresses suggest that almost half of the computers used during these hacking attempts come from the US. However, as the BBC points out, the nature of hacking means it is impossible to say with any certainty that this means the hackers are US-based.

The US is home to a far more virulent and live debate on abortion than we currently see in the UK, but there is serious cause for concern about the direction of travel on home shores. Elements of government are undeniably hostile to abortion. Hardcore anti-abortion backbenchers like Nadine Dorries are encouraged by sympathetic ministers like Andrew Lansley. Dorries’ proposals on  that women undertake independent counselling before they are allowed to have an abortion has been adopted by the Department of Health despite the fact that the Commons voted against it. Lansley recently announced spot checks on abortion clinics – including those run by BPAS – after reports that a small number of doctors were pre-signing consent forms to circumvent the rule that states that two doctors must attest a woman’s sanity before an abortion is allowed.

Clearly, the assault on BPAS’s cyber-security is something else altogether – a renegade, bottom-up attack by what appears to be a collection of individuals rather than an organised political force.

But it is a reminder that the battle on abortion is not yet won. Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general and a pro-choice campaigner, has called for the police to prosecute anyone who attempts to break in to BPAS’s computers. She was right to do so. Whether the attacks are coming from hackers or ministers, the law must protect women’s rights to both abortion and to medical privacy.
 

An anti-abortion rally outside Parliament. London, 2007. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.