A wake up call?

A couple of years ago I was teaching a class in IT law, and the subject of surveillance came up. I tried not to let my own opinions colour the debate, and listened while one student after another talked quite happily about the benefits of things like CCTV, and how the needs of security and the fight against terror and crime meant that surveillance was a generally good thing, beneficial to society. The students were mostly from affluent Western countries – the UK and Western Europe for the most part – and they all seemed generally content with the situation. Eventually, however, one of the students stood up, and told the rest of them, to all intents and purposes, that they were all mad. He didn’t want the government watching him. He didn’t trust the police to use surveillance just for the ‘right’ purposes.

He wasn’t generally one of the most loquacious of my students – indeed, most of the time he was very quiet. He did, however, have one distinct advantage over the others when looking at this kind of thing: he came from one of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, a place where the current government is in many ways even worse than before the fall of the Soviet Union. He knew, from first hand experience, the way that this kind of thing can be – and is – used in ways that control and oppress. He said, very directly, that you can’t trust a government.

The others said very little in response, except a weak attempt to say ‘well, our governments aren’t like yours’, to which he laughed, wryly. ‘They may not be now, but what about the future?’.

A wake up call?

That’s where the wake-up call comes. In yesterday’s election in Greece, the far right Golden Dawn party gained a disturbing 7% in the elections, and held rallies that had distinct echoes of Nazi Germany.

“No one should fear me if they are a good Greek citizen. If they are traitors – I don’t know,” their leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos told the media. The words, the images – and indeed the election results – have sent shivers down a lot of spines, not just in Greece but around the world.

Human Rights lawyer and blogger Adam Wagner (@AdamWagner1) tweeted about it (and later blogged – here):

“Anyone else think rise of European far right makes UK’s continued support of European human rights system seem quite sensible?”

He’s right. It does. It should remind us of the origins of a lot of the human rights conventions, declarations and so forth in the second half of the 20th Century: as a reaction to the atrocities of Second World War. We recognised the needs of people for protection from their own governments – because governments can’t be trusted to protect people at all times. Watching and listening to the spokespeople of the Golden Dawn should remind us very directly of that – as should, on a smaller scale, the calls from some of the Tory backbenches and some of the media for the government in the UK to move ‘to the right’.

Part of the ‘standard’ lurching to the right includes crackdowns on crime – and that, in turn, can often be used to justify more surveillance. It’s not hard to imagine the kinds of words that might be used to support this kind of thing – most directly, in this case, the proposed Communications Capabilities Development Programme (see the ORG summary here).

Moves like these should be resisted at all costs. Whatever systems we put into place will be hard to reverse – and won’t just be used by the ‘good guys’ to get the ‘bad guys’. Even if you do trust this current government (something which a lot of us find very hard to do), whatever we do will be available for others later. Whoever those others might be.

As Bruce Schneier put it, in one of my favourite quotes:

“It’s bad civic hygiene to build technologies that could someday be used to facilitate a police state”

He’s right. We shouldn’t. Those election results from Greece should remind at that most forcefully. Wake up. Smell the coffee.

Now we’re all at it… especially the good guys…

It’s not just the German government who are using illegally acquired data to root out tax evaders – the latest revelation is that both the French and the UK Government are doing it to. A report from the Sunday Times, available online here, has revealed much more detail – and in particular that HMRC in the UK is very enthusiastic about getting hold of this illegally acquired data. A senior tax official is quoted as saying “It’s fair to say that the prospect of getting hold of this information has generated some excitement here.”

The whole thing raises a lot of issues – some of which I mentioned in my post of 7th March – but the German, French and UK governments are all seemingly happy to do it, and at least so far there seems to be very little resistance or outcry about their tactics. The ends justify the means, perhaps. Personally, I don’t think so, and an experience I had in the classes I teach (Information Technology & the Law) suggested to me why. The class was about surveillance in the digital environment, and we were discussing the nature of enhanced CCTV, and how it, combined with information from systems like Oyster Cards, could allow coordinated tracking of individuals. I teach three classes, with a mix of different individuals with very different backgrounds. In the first class, the reaction to this kind of tracking could be described as general interest, but nothing more. In the second, it might even be described as enthusiastic – with some agreement with the view of a Police CCTV Liaison Officer that “The cameras are there to help the police and to protect the community. There is no way anybody should be afraid of them unless they have something to hide.”
The third class was different – the first person to speak had a reaction that I hadn’t really heard in the first two classes. His immediate response was that he didn’t want the government to be able to track him – and when asked why, he almost laughed, because to him it was so obvious. Why was it obvious to him, and not to the others in the previous classes? Because he happened to have experience of living in a country with what is close to an authoritarian regime. People who live in those circumstances are naturally and appropriately more likely to be suspicious and distrustful of government motives.
Here in the ‘safe’ West, where the governments are suspected much more of incompetence than evil, we don’t really seem to care that much about things like this. Right now, we seem to mostly ‘trust’ our governments, and imagine that they will only use the powers we grant them (or allow them to take for themselves) for good purposes – like catching tax evaders, or tracking terrorists. We rarely imagine that they might end up using them for entirely different purposes, purposes for which we would have much less sympathy. What would it take to make us realise the risks, let alone take them seriously? It would be nice to think that we could do so before they are taken too far.