Yesterday saw the release of the details of the Draft Communications Bill – and, despite the significant competing interest in David Cameron’s appearance at the Leveson Inquiry, its arrival was greeted with a lot of attention and reaction, both positive and negative. Theresa May characterised those of us who oppose the bill as ‘conspiracy theorists’, something that got even the Daily Mail into a bit of a state. Could she, however, have a point? Are we over-egging the pudding by linking the kind of thing in the Bill as moving us in the direction of a police state? I’ve been challenged myself over my fairly regular use of that famous quote by the excellent Bruce Schneier:
“It’s bad civic hygiene to build an infrastructure that can be used to facilitate a police state.” (see his blog here)
One of the things I was questioned on was what do we actually mean by a ‘police state’ – and it started me thinking. I’ve looked at definitions (e.g. the ever-reliable(!) wikipedia entry on ‘police state’ here) – it’s not a simple definition, and no single thing can be seen as precisely characterising what constitutes a police state. I’m no political scientist – and this is not a political science blog – but we all need to think about these things in the current climate. The primary point for me, as triggered by the Schneier quote, is that the difference between a ‘police state’ and a ‘liberal’ state is about assumptions and defaults (something I find myself writing about a lot!).
In a police state, the assumption is one of suspicion and distrust. People are assumed to be untrustworthy, and as a consequence generalised and universal surveillance makes perfect sense – and the legal, technical and bureaucratic systems are built with that universal surveillance in mind. The two police states I have most direct experience of, Burma and pre-revolutionary Romania, both worked very much in that way – the question of definitions of ‘police state’ is of course a difficult one, but when you’ve seen or experienced the real thing, it does change things.
When I visited Burma back in 1991, I know that every local that even spoke to me in the street was picked up and ‘questioned’ after the event – I don’t know quite how ‘severely’ they were questioned, but when I first heard about it after I returned to the UK it shook me. It said a great deal – firstly, that I was being watched at all times, and secondly that even talking to me was considered suspicious, and in need of investigation. The assumption was of suspicion. The default was guilt.
My wife is Romanian, and was brought up in the Ceaucescu regime – and she generally laughs when people talk about trusting their government and believing government assurances about how they can be trusted. From all the stories she’s told me, Ceaucescu would have loved the kind of surveillance facilities and access to information that we in the UK seem to be willing to grant our government. So would Honecker in East Germany. So do all the despotic regimes currently holding power around the world – monitoring social networks etc comes naturally to them, as it does to anyone wanting to control through information. Everyone is a suspect, everyone might be a terrorist, a subversive, a paedophile, a criminal.
In a liberal state the reverse should be true – people are (or should be) generally assumed to be trustworthy and worthy of respect, with the ‘criminals’, ‘subversives’ and ‘terrorists’ very much the exception. The idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is a reflection (though not a precise one) of this. That is both an ideal and something that, in general, I believe works in practice. What that means, relating back to the Schneier quote, is that we should avoid putting into place anything that is generalised rather than targeted, anything that assumes suspicion (or even guilt), anything that doesn’t have appropriately powerful checks and balances (rather than bland assurances) in place. It means that you should think very, very carefully about the advantages of things before putting them in place ‘just in case’.
At the recent ‘Scrambling for Safety’ meeting about the new UK surveillance plans (which I’ve blogged about before) two of the police representatives confirmed in no uncertain terms that the idea of universal rather than targeted surveillance was something that they neither supported nor believed was effective. They prefer the ‘intelligent’ and targeted approach – and not to put in place the kind of infrastructural surveillance systems and related legal mechanisms that people like me would call ‘bad civic hygiene’.
In a liberal rather than police state, policing should be by consent – the police ‘represent’ the people, enforcing rules and laws that the people generally believe in and support. The police aren’t enemies of the people – and the people aren’t enemies of the police. The police generally know that – on twitter, in particular, I have a lot of contact with some excellent police people, and I’m sure they don’t want to be put in that kind of position.
The Communications Bill
So where does the new bill come into this? As well as the detailed issues with it (which I will be looking into over the next few weeks and months) there’s a big question of assumptions going on. It’s not just the details that matter, it’s the thinking that lies behind it. The idea that universal surveillance is a good thing – and make no mistake, that’s what’s being envisaged here – should itself be challenged, not just the details. That’s the idea that lies behind a police state.