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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.