What is the real reason that certain of the authorities are so keen on universal surveillance of communications data? Is it the fight against terrorism? It doesn’t seem very likely. It’s a supremely ineffective method of dealing with terrorism at best – even the examples quoted by the security services as ‘proof’ that it works have pretty much all been swiftly debunked (see for example here). In practice, it seems, targeted, intelligence-driven, almost ‘traditional’ methods seem to do the job far better. So why do the authorities all around the globe seem to be so enthusiastic about communications surveillance? One word: control
Control is the key
Despotic regimes have always wanted to have as complete a level of surveillance as possible – they want to know what is going on, who is meeting who, what they’re talking about, what they’re planning. That way, they can get control over their people. They can find subversives and dissidents, they can infiltrate those who resist or plot against them, they can snuff out the plans of their enemies before they gather sufficient momentum to have a real effect. That’s been fundamental to pretty much every oppressive regime throughout history – and the capabilities of the internet, and in particular of internet surveillance, offer possibilities beyond the dreams of the despots of yesteryear. However, it’s not just despots who like surveillance – or rather, it’s not just those that we usually label as ‘despots’ who like it. It’s anyone who wants more control – or who thinks that things are going out of control. It’s those concerned with ‘public order’. It’s those concerned with ‘protest’. That, sadly, means it’s all of our governments today – even that in the UK.
Snooping on the badger-cull protestors
News came out this week that ‘Whitehall chiefs scan Twitter to head off badger protests‘. As reported to the BBC, ‘[t]he Department for Rural Affairs uses “horizon scanning” software to gain an “early warning” of public protests.’ Relatively speaking, this is a primitive form of snooping – and a legal one, since it scans public messages on social media services such as twitter. This isn’t a secret plan like PRISM, but an official and key part of the government’s communication plan – but it reveals a good deal about how the government (and other authorities) see the potential of communications surveillance. If they can find out what people are thinking and planning, they can nip protests in the bud.
Pretty much all of this, of course, is legal, and much of it is justifiable in ‘public order’ terms – but as anyone who saw the recent and deeply shocking revelations that the McLibel leaflet was co-written by an undercover police officer who had infiltrated an environmental campaign group would know, the tactics and techniques used by ‘law enforcement’ to deal with protestors and related groups can often stretch not just the law but our imaginations. Ideas presented and proposed for good or at least defensible reasons can easily morph into something much more sinister. Give the authorities leeway, and they use it…
The real use of communications surveillance…
…which is what, it seems likely, is one of the keys behind the enthusiasm for all kinds of communications surveillance, from the Snoopers’ Charter in the UK to PRISM and so forth in the US, to all the massive new programme in India etc. They know that if they have full surveillance capabilities their ability to control what is happening will be magnified enormously. Not only can they effectively unmask protestors, they can find out who their friends are, what websites they visit, where they’re planning to meet and so on. If they take it a few steps further, they can block them from communicating with each other, shut down their blogs – or warn them off with anonymous threatening emails, or leak their details to their enemies.
Does this sound far-fetched? Perhaps, but not nearly as far fetched as the McLibel story, let alone the other horrendous details surrounding police infiltration of environmental and anti-racist groups. What’s more, most of the surveillance systems planned are designed for precisely this kind of surveillance – linking into Facebook, Google etc is far better at this that it is at fighting terrorism, paedophilia etc. Terrorists and paedophiles don’t do their planning on Facebook etc – but those organising legal, peaceful protests like that against the badger cull DO. Terrorists and paedophiles do everything they can to keep ‘dark’ – and they learn how to do so, what technology to use to bypass the authorities. Peaceful protesters don’t – they don’t often feel that they need to, and they don’t have the capabilities. They’re the obvious targets of this kind of thing: universal internet surveillance isn’t so much about fighting the big things as it is about keeping ‘public order’.
Whether that is an acceptable thing is another story. Public order IS important – but so is the right to protest, and not just in countries like Turkey. Protest is fundamental to our democracy, to our freedom of expression, to our ability to hold our governments to account. It’s important everywhere, and letting the authorities design and operate systems to stifle and control it is something about which we should be very wary.