This afternoon I was at ‘Scrambling for Safety’ – a fascinating conference, focussing on the proposed ‘Communications Capabilities Development Programme’, aptly if not entirely accurately dubbed the ‘snoopers’ charter’ by the media. The conference was organised by Privacy International, the Open Rights Group, the Foundation for Information Policy Research and Big Brother Watch – and had a truly stellar line-up, from Ross Anderson and Shami Chakrabati to MPs David Davis, Julian Huppert and Tom Brake, David Smith from the ICO, Professor Douwe Korff, former Chief Police Officer Sir Chris Fox QPM, noted cryptographer Whit Diffie and industry expert and rep Trefor Davies. Some of the best and most expert people from many different areas in the field.
Overall, it was a remarkable conference – I’m not going to try to summarise what people said, just to pick out some of the key things I took away from the event. Some lessons, some observations, so confirmations of what we already knew – and, sadly, some huge barriers that will need to be overcome if we are to be successful in beating this hugely misguided and highly dangerous project.
- There are a LOT of people from all fields who are deeply concerned with this. The number of people – and the kind of people – who took their time to attend, at short notice, was very impressive.
- This problem really does matter – I know I go on about privacy and related subjects a lot, but when I attend an event like this, and listen to these kinds of people talk, it reminds me how much is at stake.
- The work of Privacy International, the Open Rights Group and Big Brother Watch needs to be applauded and supported! Getting this kind of an event to work in such a way was brilliant work – and Gus Hosein (PI), Eric King (PI), Jim Killock (ORG), Nick Pickles (BBW) and their colleagues did an excellent job.
- David Davis is a really impressive – and I say that as someone generally diametrically opposed to his political views. On this subject, he really does get it, and in a way that almost no other politician in this country gets it.
- As David Davis said, it really isn’t a party political issue – I’ve blogged before about this (here) but what happened at Scrambling for Safety made it even clearer than before. All the parties have their problems…
- …and one of them was made crystal clear, by the very, very disappointing performance of Tom Brake MP, a Lib Dem MP and spokesperson on the issue. He seemed to offer nothing but a repeat of exactly the kind of propaganda spouted by apologists for the security lobby ad nauseam over the last decade or more. In fact, he said pretty much everything that Gus Hosein, in his opening to the conference, said that official spokespeople would say by way of misdirection and obfuscation. If Tom Brake is a representative of the ‘better-informed’ of MPs, we really are in trouble. It wasn’t just that his performance seemed that of a ‘yes-man’ or ‘career politician’, but that he simply didn’t seem to understand the issues, concerns, or even the technology involved.
- Julian Huppert, also from the Lib Dems, was far more impressive – but of course he has no ‘official’ position. That seems to be the problem: anyone who understands this kind of thing is not ‘allowed’ to be involved in the decision-making process: or perhaps once they do get involved in any ‘official’ capacity, they lose (or have stripped away from them) the capacity for independent thought…
- The police are NOT the enemy here – in fact, former Chief Constable Sir Chris Fox was one of the most impressive speakers, putting a strong case against this kind of thing from the perspective of the police. In the end, the police don’t really want this kind of thing any more than privacy advocates do. This kind of universal surveillance, he said, could overwhelm the police with data and detract from the kind of real police work that can actually help combat terrorism. Sir Chris was supported by another police officer, one of the audience, a former Special Branch officer, who confirmed all Sir Chris’s comments.
- Sir Chris Fox also made what I thought was probably the most important observation about the whole counter-terrorism issue: that we have to accept there WILL be more terrorist incidents – but that this is balanced by the benefits we have from living in a free society.
- The problem of ignorance matters on all levels – and in many different directions: technological, legal, practical, political. That’s the real problem here. People are pushing policies that they don’t understand, to deal with problems with which they have no real experience or knowledge…. politicians, civil servants, etc, etc, etc
- I was very interested that Ross Anderson (who was excellent, as always) expects us to be able to defeat the CCDP – because once people understand what is at stake, they won’t accept it. He did, however, suggest that once we’ve defeated this, the next stage will be harder to defeat – that the security lobby will try to work through the providers directly, asking (for example) Google, Facebook etc to install ‘black boxes’ on their own systems, rather than through ISPs… and some of these providers will just do it… that’s harder to know about, and harder to combat.
- Last, but far from least, David Davis made the point that though people who know and understand these issues are few and far between (though very well represented at the conference!), they can punch above their weight – the very fact that ‘we’ know how to use social media etc means that we can have more of an impact than our numbers might suggest.
This last point is the one that I came away with the most. We really NEED to punch above our weight – there’s a huge job to do. There was a great deal of energy, enthusiasm and expertise evident at Scrambling for Safety, but even by the end of the afternoon it was losing a bit of focus. We need to be focussed, coordinated and ‘clever’ in how we do this. Surveillance must be kept in the headlines – and we mustn’t let the kind of misdirection and distraction that politicians and their spin-doctors use far too often distract us from fighting against this.
What’s more, again as David Davis said, we don’t just need to stop this CCDP, we need to reverse the trend. The powers in RIPA, the data retention already done under the Data Retention Directive, are already too much – they need to be cut back, not extended or ‘modernised’. It will be a huge task – but one worth doing.