Only days after I write an article saying Virtual Private Networks are the best way to avoid scrutiny by the government under its newly-approved Snoopers’ Charter, someone chimes in to say that they’re rubbish.
I’d normally say that is a business opportunity for someone, but in this case it seems they would need to be based outside the UK, in order to avoid falling under the jurisdiction of the Snoopers’ Charter themselves.
I don’t have anything against foreign nationals creating a decent service and offering it to UK citizens; it’s just that it won’t directly benefit the UK’s economy.
Do you have any idea who’ll be able to look at your browsing history soo?
After the Snoopers’ Charter – sorry, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 – receives Royal Assent, your web history for up to a year will become available to almost 50 police forces and government departments. They’ll be able to see which sites and internet messaging apps you visited and used – but won’t know which pages you saw.
Police and intelligence agencies will be able to hack into your computer and access its data, and can order Communication Service Providers (CSPs) to help them with this – and it will be an offence for a CSP or an employee of one to reveal that your data has been requested.
Here’s the list of organisations that can view your history, courtesy of this site:
Metropolitan police force
City of London police force
Police forces maintained under section 2 of the Police Act 1996
Police Service of Scotland
Police Service of Northern Ireland
British Transport Police
Ministry of Defence Police
Royal Navy Police
Royal Military Police
Royal Air Force Police
Secret Intelligence Service
Ministry of Defence
Department of Health
Ministry of Justice
National Crime Agency
HM Revenue & Customs
Department for Transport
Department for Work and Pensions
NHS trusts and foundation trusts in England that provide ambulance services
Common Services Agency for the Scottish Health Service
Competition and Markets Authority
Criminal Cases Review Commission
Department for Communities in Northern Ireland
Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland
Department of Justice in Northern Ireland
Financial Conduct Authority
Fire and rescue authorities under the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004
Food Standards Agency
Food Standards Scotland
Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority
Health and Safety Executive
Independent Police Complaints Commissioner
NHS Business Services Authority
Northern Ireland Ambulance Service Health and Social Care Trust
Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service Board
Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Regional Business Services Organisation
Office of Communications
Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland
Police Investigations and Review Commissioner
Scottish Ambulance Service Board
Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission
Serious Fraud Office
Welsh Ambulance Services National Health Service Trust
The same site adds that bulk collection and storage will also create an irresistible target for malicious actors, massively increasing the risk that your personal data will end up in the hands of:
People able to hack / infiltrate your ISP
People able to hack / infiltrate your Wi-Fi hotspot provider
People able to hack / infiltrate your mobile network operator
People able to hack / infiltrate a government department or agency
People able to hack / infiltrate the government’s new multi-database request filter
None of the above are likely to have your best interests at heart, and experience indicates that a major security breach will happen sooner, rather than later, “assuming, of course, that the powers that be manage not to just lose all of our personal data in the post.”
What’s to be done about it?
Well, according to The Guardian, not an awful lot. For a start, you can’t hide from the security services, and if they want to hack your devices, they will. But then, if they’re not out to get you, there’s no reason to behave as though they should be. Inconspicuousness could become the order of the day.
The paper advocates Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which encrypt traffic between computers for a small monthly fee. Your service provider can’t see the final destination so its records should contain only the VPN company’s server addresses.
Apparently, when choosing a VPN, you should check the number of servers and where they are located, their privacy policies, the applications they support (Tor, BitTorrent etc), speed and price. Some have applications for different devices – Windows, MacOS, iPhone, iPad and Android.
If you are trying to avoid Snoopers’ Charter-related surveillance, choose a VPN that is not UK-based, and that does not keep any logs – because then they can’t hand them over to the government. TorrentFreak keeps an updated list of “which VPN services take your anonymity seriously”: The Best Anonymous VPN Services of 2016.
Some VPN providers accept payments by dozens of different methods including Bitcoin and anonymous gift cards – but a VPN cannot guarantee access to any particular website; Netflix has taken to blocking most VPN services, and problems may arise with Google’s geolocation, PayPal’s fraud detection software, and so on. And a VPN doesn’t protect you from phishing emails, keyloggers, and websites that try to install “drive by” malware.
Your web visits may still be logged – in your own web browser history and dozens of advertising services, including Google’s. You can block trackers with a browser extension such as Ghostery or the EFF’s Privacy Badger, but note that Privacy Badger only blocks trackers from third-party sites. GRC has a “forensics” page, which checks whether you are being tracked by cookies.According to the Graun: “For increased privacy, you could access the internet from a “virtual computer” loaded in your operating system, and then throw it away after use. VirtualBox is a good free example. VMware Workstation Player is also free for non-commercial use.
“This may be the only way to avoid being tracked by “browser fingerprinting”. This is when the tracking company (or government agency) gives your PC a unique identifier based on variables such as screen resolution, browser version, extensions, fonts, timezone and so on. If you use a virtual PC, every session starts with a more-or-less generic fingerprint. It may not be perfect, but it’s less identifiable than the alternative.”
Will This Writer be doing any of the above?
No. Or at least, probably not.
It’s a lot of hassle for someone who doesn’t actually break the law – even though I might say things the government would prefer people not to know.
But it’s good to know what the options are, just in case. Right?
It seems the Tories have nowhere to hide today – now Labour is piling on the pressure over tax dodging and the HSBC scandal.
Ed Miliband suggested the government had “gone into hiding” over the issue at his question and answer session in the West Midlands earlier today, and now Chris Leslie, Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, has stepped into the fray.
“We’ve now had a week of silence from George Osborne – the submarine chancellor still hasn’t surfaced,” he said.
“It is time he and David Cameron finally started answering questions about HSBC and Lord Green… In this row over tax evasion David Cameron and George Osborne are now guilty of political evasion.”
Earlier, Mr Leslie had said: “We need a full and frank statement from Lord Green explaining what he knew about what was happening while he was in charge of HSBC.
“There are also mounting questions for ministers, which continue to go unanswered. Did David Cameron and George Osborne discuss tax evasion at HSBC with Lord Green? The Prime Minister failed to answer this four times in the House of Commons.
“Why did they appoint Lord Green as a Tory minister months after the government received these files? Why have we only had one prosecution out of 1,100 names? And why did George Osborne and the Treasury sign a deal with the Swiss in 2012 which prevents the UK from actively obtaining similar information in the future?
“It is time we finally had answers from David Cameron and George Osborne.”
Hervé Falciani, the HSBC whistleblower – currently on the run from the Swiss authorities.
We owe a great debt to the whistleblowers – people who alert us to the misdeeds of the major corporations and public organisations whose decisions affect our everday lives.
Acting entirely altruistically – with no thought for personal gain – these people warn us about the cheats who squat at the top of the economic food chain, doing everything they can to screw the system.
The whistleblowers deserve congratulation and promotion, while the cheats should be removed from their positions, prosecuted, and ordered to pay substantial sums of money as penalty for their actions.
And what do we do? The exact opposite. We prosecute the whistleblowers and elevate the cheats.
Look at Hervé Falciani, the former HSBC systems engineer who revealed that the bank was helping clients avoid paying tax. According to Tax Research UK, he has been on the run from Swiss authorities because he broke Swiss bank secrecy laws to reveal the information, and is living under protection.
Antoine Deltour, who blew the whistle PricewaterhouseCoopers’ lucrative tax avoidance sideline, is now being prosecuted in Luxembourg at the behest of that firm.
Meanwhile, Stephen Green, who chaired HSBC at the time of its offences, was ennobled and made a Conservative minister, while PwC continues to advice the Tory government on its policies to tackle – yes – tax avoidance.
It’s a backwards culture that can only benefit the criminals, and it’s time for legislation to reverse the situation.
Is any political party brave enough to do the honourable thing?
Labour’s proposals follow the revelations of tax avoidance on a massive scale at HSBC Bank while it was run by Stephen Green – who later became a Conservative lord and minister [Image: Daily Mirror].
In a clear response to the HSBC tax avoidance revelations, Labour is setting out its plans to tackle the issue if elected into office after May’s general election.
With campaigners and non-government organisations calling for a “Tax Dodging Bill”, Labour has announced that its first Finance Bill will act to tackle tax avoidance – and was due to set out the measures in an Opposition Day Debate today (Wednesday, February 11).
Labour’s motion notes that just one out of 1,100 people who have avoided or evaded tax have been prosecuted following the revelations of malpractice at HSBC bank, which were first given to the government in May 2010, after the Conservative and Liberal Democrat government had taken office.
It also calls upon Lord Green and David Cameron to make a full statement about his role at HSBC and his appointment as a minister in 2011.
The proposed Finance Bill includes plans to:
· Introduce penalties for those who are caught by the General Anti-Abuse Rule
· Close loopholes used by hedge funds to avoid stamp duty
· Close loopholes like the Eurobonds loophole which allow some large companies to move profits out of the UK and avoid Corporation Tax
· Stop umbrella companies exploiting tax reliefs
· Scrap the “Shares for Rights” scheme, which the OBR has warned could enable avoidance and cost £1bn and is administered by HMRC, and so ensure HMRC can better focus on tackling tax avoidance
· Tackle disguised self-employment by introducing strict deeming criteria
· Tackle the use of dormant companies to avoid tax by requiring them to report more frequently
Labour’s measures to tackle tax avoidance will also include:
· Ensuring stronger independent scrutiny of the tax system, including reliefs, and the government’s efforts to tackle tax avoidance
· Forcing the UK’s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies to produce publicly available registries of beneficial ownership
· Making country-by-country reporting information publicly available
· Ensuring developing countries are properly engaged in the drawing up of global tax rules
Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said: “David Cameron and George Osborne have totally failed to tackle tax avoidance in the last five years. They have failed to close the loopholes we have highlighted, and the amount of uncollected tax has risen under this government.
“I am determined that the next Labour Government will act where the Tories have failed. We will close loopholes that cost the exchequer billions of pounds a year, increase transparency and toughen up penalties – and we will act in our first Finance Bill.”
Shabana Mahmood MP, Labour’s Shadow Exchequer Secretary, said: “The Tories and Lib Dems should back our motion to show that they are serious about tackling tax avoidance and evasion. We have a clear plan for our first Finance Bill after the election – they need to back that or explain why they don’t.”
This is a terrific move by the Labour Party. It seems clear that Labour was planning to tackle tax avoidance in any case – and should gain recognition for that alone, after the Coalition Government spent the last five years blowing hot air at us and doing nothing.
But it’s not perfect. Richard Murphy, of Tax Research UK, wrote yesterday evening: “There is no commitment to extra funding at HMRC. Nothing will happen without that.
“There is no direct reference to the tax gap and making explicit that these issues are meant to close it. Whilst HMRC works with the current deficient version of the tax gap this problem cannot, again, be resolved.
“I want a general anti-avoidance principle, not a revised General Anti-Abuse Rule, but penalties sure as heck help.
“There is no mention of the extra resources needed to make sure Companies House works properly, which is as important as the changes in dormant company reporting.
“There is no mention of BEPS implementation or action on things like permanent establishment and controlled foreign companies.
“And there’s no Office for Tax Responsibility as yet (although the hint of one has, I note appeared, so I am hopeful).”
All these criticisms are valid and it is to be hoped that Labour will adapt its bill to accommodate them. Even if this does not happen, Mr Murphy himself adds: “Let me stop complaining for a moment because I will probably never be completely satisfied.
“This is a package that indicates commitment to listen and commitment to change. It is a package that looks across the board at the issues of concern. And it addresses a fair range of items into debate. I welcome that, of course. The devil is always in the detail but there is room for manoeuvre in here and many statements are moves in the right direction when those are sorely needed.
“That is what is needed for now, and I’ll take it at that level.”
Do any of the other parties have anything at all to say?
Jean-Claude Juncker, tax avoidance mastermind and now President of the European Commission.
Believe it or not, David Cameron was right to oppose the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission.
If Private Eye is to be believed, Juncker has a record of wreaking fiscal havoc across the continent, thanks to his behaviour embracing corporate tax dodgers as finance minister and prime minister of Luxembourg.
Anti-EU readers will be interested to note that he was chair of the EU’s council of economic and financial affairs, in which role he played a key part in shaping the economic and monetary aspects of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.
Eye 1368 (June 13-26) states that Luxembourg has turned itself into a tax haven, “but, crucially, one at the heart of Europe entitled to tax-free flows of money in and out of its borders in a way traditional sunny island havens… could only dream of.
“The Grand Duchy became the member of the economic club that pilfered from the club’s funds.”
Let’s look at examples: “An especially fruitful line has been multi-billion-pound corporate tax avoidance at its neighbours’ expense. In the most infamous case, Vodafone still routes more than £50bn worth of loans through Luxembourg for no purpose other than taking advantage of tax laws and administrative rulings carefully tailored by Juncker’s governments to facilitate large-scale tax avoidance… The company is sitting on a £17.4 billion “tax asset”, ie reduction in future tax bills around the world, courtesy of [Mr] Juncker.
“Hundreds of other multinationals, including the UK’s Glaxo, Tesco and Financial Times publisher Pearson, use Luxembourg in similar ways at enormous cost to Europe’s economies.”
And the buck doesn’t stop rolling with tax, either: “Juncker pursued an aggressive regime of financial deregulation, especially in the area of investment fund administration. So it was no surprise that when Bernard Madoff’s ponzi scheme collapsed in 2008, a large chunk of the money had come through loosely-regulated Luxembourg funds set up by Swiss banks.”
The man responsible for the above is now in charge of the European Union. David Cameron was right to oppose his appointment.
How many of you tuned into the last episode of Benefits Street on Channel 4, and stayed on for the debate that followed?
Quite a few, I reckon.
They were worth watching, but the feeling that was left with this viewer (and I’ve been reviewing television for 20 years or more) is that we are talking ourselves around in circles – led by politicians with a vested interest in perpetuating the discussion.
They don’t want a solution. They want us to keep going over the same ground – which they have laid out for us with very specific limits – and they want to concentrate our anger about this issue so that we blame, not the people responsible – the tax dodgers who put money into tax havens that could be invested in British industry, the private landlords and low-paying bosses who are subsidised by the benefit system and the bankers who caused the economic crisis a few years ago – but the people who have been forced onto benefits through no fault of their own and are being persecuted for it by a punitive system that penalises them for failing to find jobs that really do not exist.
Look at the way David Cameron leapt forward with fistfuls of cash to pay for flood relief when Tory heartlands were affected, saying that money was no object and Britain is a rich country. We’re rich enough to look after the playing fields of Eton, but not our poorest citizens, according to his mentality. Property is worth more to him than people.
Why? Because the people who send their children to Eton are the people Cameron hopes will elect him (he can’t be re-elected; he didn’t win the 2010 election) in 2015. The unemployed are less likely to vote for him – in fact they are less likely to vote at all. It seems there is something about being rejected by society that instils a sense of listlessness and despair in the human psyche. People ask themselves: Why bother?
There are solutions, but it is cause for concern that we are not hearing about them from our MPs and politicians. Journalist Owen Jones came out with the clearest plan during the debate on Channel 4 last night, and it is well worth quoting in full.
He said: “Firstly let’s make it clear – work does not pay in this country. We hear that as a mantra, when most people in poverty get up in the morning and earn that poverty.
“We’re talking about people milking the system. Let’s talk about the low-paying bosses who are being subsidised with in-work benefits because, in the seventh-richest country on Earth, they won’t pay.
“If we’re talking about getting people into jobs I actually think we need to talk about solutions here. One in six workers in the last two years have claimed Jobseekers’ Allowance at some point; that’s a lack of security.
“What we need firstly is a massive house-building programme that would reduce the amount spent on Housing Benefit which, by the way, is not going into the pockets of these tenants – it’s lining the pockets of private landlords charging rip-off rents. If we build housing, it would create jobs and we would stimulate the economy as well.
“It goes the same with the need for an industrial strategy because what successive governments have done, and it started in the eighties, is let the secure jobs go to rot, if you like. Now, other countries like Germany, what they’ve done is had an industrial strategy. Instead of saying, ‘Hands off, let the market decide,’ they’ve said, ‘Actually we want to create jobs in renewable energy.’ Now we’ve just seen the floods; we’re going to have a lot more extreme weather, so let’s have an industrial strategy to go and create renewable energy jobs, giving people secure, dignified jobs, taking on the environmental crisis.
“These are solutions… We’ve got to change the debate we have at the moment where the real villains of the piece, like the tax dodgers who get away with not paying £25 billion a year in tax, like the private landlords and the low-paying bosses milking our welfare state, like the bankers who caused the economic disaster – they get away with it, but all we ever hear about is kicking people at the bottom.”
Absolutely right. And that’s all we’ll hear about it for the foreseeable future, as well. We won’t hear about returning to a full-employment society (which is perfectly possible), because that means the greedy rich will have less money for themselves in the short term.
In the long term, ensuring that there are properly-paid jobs for the most people, so they do not have to claim benefits, means that there is more money moving around the economy – and money makes money. The parasites – who are making a fortune unsustainably by working people hard and paying them poverty rations – would be just as rich in the long run, but they cannot bear to consider the possibility.
One has to consider whether they want to force people into poverty, just to make their own wealth seem more remarkable – the poverty trap as ego-trip, if you like.
But we won’t hear about that because it is politically inflammatory. Far better to set the lower classes against each other, laying blame on each other for problems that are caused by different people entirely – and laugh all the way to the offshore bank.
If I had to describe Britain to a foreigner, I would ask them to imagine a person being robbed outside a public lavatory, by the mayor of his town, while council workers started demolishing the building; the rich are destroying our public services and mugging us at the same time.
Very soon, the same people who are mugging you will be asking for your vote…
… while blaming you for problems they have done nothing to solve.
Diddled into debt: A corporate tax avoidance scam is conning workers out of decent pay and the government out of tax and NI money, after causing the financial crisis.
“A bank in the UK could lend, say, $1bn to a US bank… generating tax-free income in the UK but a tax deduction in the US – and then simply borrow it back. For the second leg a different instrument could be used that generated tax-free income in the US and a tax deduction in the UK. The banks had simply swapped $1bn, to no economic effect beyond two tax breaks, while quite possibly keeping any mention of the debts off either’s balance sheet. Such tricks – the creation of debt more for tax advantages than any real business need – undoubtedly contributed to huge levels of inter-bank indebtedness that triggered the financial crisis.” – Richard Brooks, The Great Tax Robbery, p86.
If you are not deeply disturbed by the implications of the above quotation, read it again until you are. Richard Brooks is saying that the major banks of the UK, the USA, and who knows how many other countries colluded to hide massive amounts of money from the tax man by claiming – falsely – that it was debt.
The financial crisis happened because the banks could not service the debt they had created – they could not even pay back the interest on it, let alone the debt itself – and so the government was forced to step in and bail them out. So now the government had not only lost the tax it was due from the bank profits that had been hidden by the dodge Mr Brooks mentions, but it had now taken on the fake debt that had been created. The taxpayer was doubly the loser.
Who pays back the debt? Not the banks. Not the large corporations that are also avoiding tax. Not the rich businessmen and women who dreamed up the tax dodges. Thanks to changes in the law and already-existing legal loopholes that have not been closed by the Coalition government, they have been able to park their ill-gotten gains in offshore tax havens, depriving the nation of the wherewithal it needs to fix the problem they created.
With more people in work than ever before, the UK should be getting massive amounts more in tax and National Insurance, allowing it to provide the services we expect and pay down the national deficit. But the deficit hasn’t budged. Why?
Because the new jobs are part-time, self-employed or temporary.
Self-employed contracting means you can end up working for less than the minimum wage (you’re paid a fixed daily rate for the job, not the hours it takes to do it, so if it takes a long time to get it done, your pay-per-hour diminishes proportionately – and, as you are self-employed, you’re not entitled to the minimum wage).
Conversely, if you are employed part-time, you can end up working too few hours to qualify for tax or National Insurance (so you don’t get enough credits to pay for your pension later in life and the Treasury doesn’t get the tax money it needs to pay for services and clear debts) and on a personal level you don’t work enough hours to qualify for decent holidays. The company doesn’t pay for employees going on annual leave, potentially saving tens of millions of pounds.
If you work overtime, this doesn’t count towards annual leave, of course. So you can be employed on a part-time contract for, say, three days a week, be asked to work two more days overtime (a full five-day week) and lose out on all the benefits a full-time worker would expect.
The threshold is 20 hours per week. If you work less than that, employers do not have to pay NI contributions which would cost them nearly 14 per cent of pay. So people may work all their lives but never qualify for the state pension.
This is why more people are now in work than before the recession – it’s a cheat by bosses. They’re the ones who pay your tax and NI contributions. If you’re on pay that’s below the new tax threshold, you don’t pay tax. We have the Liberal Democrats to thank for that. It seems like a good deal but in fact it isn’t.
Meanwhile the companies say that cutting down working hours has saved jobs in a hard business environment, while the number of full-time jobs is down and wages have now fallen by 12 per cent in real terms (up from nine per cent, only a few months ago).
It is cheaper for companies to employ more people on shorter hours because they pay less to the government in tax and NI. And they say the “flexible” labour market has been a boost for the country, that having a job is better than having no job, and that it will help people progress.
That is not what we see.
We see a workforce ground down by the pressure of making ends meet on part-time or zero-hours jobs, making no NI contributions, getting very few holidays, and afraid to challenge the situation because their employers can simply let them go and hire someone else from the huge 2.5-million-strong pool of the unemployed (who are desperate for jobs because the DWP fills their entire lives will bullying and threats about losing their benefits).
We see the government completely unable to cover its costs because its own tax system – written by the ‘Big 4’ accountancy firms that have been responsible for more tax avoidance schemes than any other organisations in the country – actively promotes corporate tax avoidance; and Conservative ministers are totally indifferent to the huge losses they are piling up, because it means they can cut public services, or sell them off to (again) big corporations who will then avoid paying tax on them.
And we see the rich corporates laughing all the way to the (offshore) bank yet again.
The Coalition government has tried to tell us that it must squeeze benefits for the extremely poor, and low-paid working people must work much harder, in order to pay off the debt that – no matter what ministers tell us – neither they, nor the last Labour government, created.
In fact, this has been a story of tax avoidance by the very rich. A huge scam, running for decades, and hidden from the British people.
“This government is taking action domestically on [tax] avoidance and evasion,” wrote George Osborne in an article for The Observer, back in February. How right he was.
The Tory-led Coalition has done everything in its power to facilitate tax avoidance and ignore evasion, it seems, including the latest wheeze, which is to link it with a feeble attempt to get working people to throw away their rights in exchange for a few shares.
The BBC has reported that the new status of “employee shareholder” has come into force, allowing working people to claim shares in the company that employs them, if they give up the rights to claim unfair dismissal and statutory redundancy pay, the right to request flexible working (except in the case of two weeks’ parental leave), and some rights to request time off for training.
Nobody in their right mind would do this and expert opinion is that take-up will be small. So why do it?
Well, it’s not about the workers at all. It’s about helping company bosses avoid paying their taxes. Even the right-wing-leaning BBC was unable to cover up the facts (although it left them until the end of the article):
“Companies can also claim some corporation tax deductions on the issuance of shares to employees.”
Yes – it’s a tax dodge!
Here’s how it works, according to the Mirror: “New analysis show[s] it could also allow executives to avoid paying revenue on company shares. Tax experts commissioned by the TUC believe ruthless bosses could classify themselves as ’employee owners’ to escape Capital Gains Tax. And the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates the scheme could cost up to £1 billion, mainly due to tax avoidance.”
This will, of course, involve a drop in tax income to the Treasury, meaning increases in the national debt and deficit, which the Tories will no doubt use to justify further cuts to public service budgets as part of their ‘Starve The Beast’ agenda. Remember, this country has a chancellor who, for ideological purposes, actually wants to harm the British economy.
Meanwhile, as our friend at Another Angry Voice has put it: “If you’re thick enough to cash in your labour rights for a few grand worth of shares in the company you work for, then in a couple of years time when people are calling you ‘feckless’ for being unemployed, you’ll be one of the minority that actually deserve it (and your shares might well be worth only pennies in the pound compared to the value they had when you scrapped your labour rights to get them).”
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