Friday, September 26, 2014


The mindset of FBI director, James Comey, appears to be that of someone who believes the lives of all citizens should be on permanent display for government inspection and approval. Privacy, remember, is only for criminals. Apart from the fact that this won't be the first or last time that Apple or other commercial enterprise overstates the potential efficacy of its product features in any particular context, Mr Comey's belief that he has the right, nay, duty to berate the company for its modest implementation of privacy enhancing technology is not one I can share.

It's not a big logical leap for a society that normalises mass collection, processing, analysis and storage of communications (metadata and content, even if the distinction is no longer clear) to consider that those who would wish to opt out, or those that would help them do so, should be considered anomalous and suspicious.

It's not a big logical leap to say we'll collect all the information but don't worry it's only "seen" by the computer, not real people, so it's not real surveillance; and it will only be looked at for evidence of wrongdoing by bad guys... or those linked to bad guys... or those linked to those linked to bad guys...

It's not a big logical leap to say we're not collecting enough information.

Everything will be easier or better or more efficient if only we collect more.

Big data is the future of commerce and government.

We already have mass telephone and internet interception, let's install CCTV cameras in all homes. Oh yes, people already have webcams attached to their computers and we have already collected millions of users' Yahoo webcam images. But that's only in the rooms with computers and the cameras don't cover all corners of the rooms. And, after all, the footage will only be collected and "seen" by computers, not real people, so it's not real surveillance.

And we don't have to record the audio. At least at first. So we don't know what people are actually saying to each other. So it's only metadata. We know where they are and who they are talking to and for how long but not what they are actually saying to each other.  If we surreptitiously use lip reading programs that's only to detect serious criminality.  Ah, you know what, we have to protect people so it doesn't matter if we record the audio too. It will only be 'seen' by computers.

And if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about.

It's not a big logical leap to say, you know all that information in all those giant databases? We should be using it not just to catch terrorists but to catch
It's not a big logical leap to say we shouldn't just limit it to these serious criminals. We need to apply use of this information to illegal immigrants, benefit scroungers, criminal youths, burglars, petty criminals, drunkards, louts, vandals, offensive people, inner city sink estates with unruly families who may cause trouble, ethnic minority communities which may have a link to a religion extreme forms of which may be cited as an excuse for murder and mayhem, Romanians (if UKIP ever get a say), the poor, disabled or sick or elderly...

It's not a big logical leap to say we need to use this information to improve public services -
  • the NHS
  • education
  • social welfare
  • policing and criminal justice
  • intelligence
  • defence
  • foreign affairs
  • economy
So people with a HSCIC database determined genetic predisposition towards contracting certain kinds of cancers may be required to take out private health insurance just in case they become a disproportionate drain on the NHS. Or kids with mental health or special educational or social needs be excluded from good schools so they don't disrupt the normal kids.

Even the most dedicated of public servants, and I have the privilege to know a lot of them, heavily under-resourced and under relentless pressure for outcomes, from management or politicians of varying levels and competence, succumb, with the best of intentions, to the temptation of mission or function creep.

It not a big logical leap to convince ourselves it is ok to use data or facilities gathered or created for one purpose for an additional 'useful' or convenient or target facilitating purpose.

Dedicated people in all walks of life bend/break/ignore/re-interpret/renew the rules because everyone else is doing it, so it's not a big deal.

But this combination of the normalisation of mass surveillance, function creep and (sometimes) well intentioned rule making and rule breaking create the conditions for the poisonous snakes in suits of the world to thrive. And it only takes a handful of them in the wrong places to cause widespread misery and abuse of human rights.

The sad thing is we can and sometimes do design, build, operate and use communications systems, computers and big data in socially, economically and legally enlightened ways, in the public good, when we do so intelligently and ethically. But we're often failing to do so. The seductive attractions of convenience, instant gratification and the ease and power with which all personal data can be collected, processed and stored (the economic agents doing the collection can figure out how to exploit/use/monetize it later), beat intelligence, ethics and the public good, every time.

I was chatting with my elder teen late one evening this week about some of this. I expressed a concern that he and his kids would be asking me, in my dotage, what the hell I thought I was doing when we were building the communications infrastructure of a surveillance state. After all, all that is required for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing.

"Dad," says he, "I can guarantee that's one question I'll never have to ask you."

I'm wasn't sure whether to be flattered that he over-estimates the efficacy of my efforts in this landscape, sad that he may change his mind, concerned that I've burdened him with my worries or optimistic that he and his generation are smarter than me and mine; and they will put those smarts to good effect in building a more equitable and enlightened world.