Monday, May 11, 2015

VE Day, freedom, justice and technology policy

An edited version of the following piece is available at The Conversation.

On the 70th anniversary of VE Day, it became clear that 36.9% of those who turned out, in the UK general election the previous day, voted for the Conservative party. With the turnout being 66.1%, this means that 24.3% of those eligible to vote gave the Tories an unexpected slim majority of seats in Parliament.

What does this mean for technology policy over the next five years, now that the Tories have been joyfully unleashed from their Liberal Democrat coalition partners? Well the big technology issues will continue to be things like communications infrastructure, surveillance, big data, human rights, encryption, security and intellectual property.

Communications infrastructure
Any progressive modern government indulging in rhetoric about being world leaders in technology needs to invest their money where their mouths are. Forget petty little projects like HS2, forget austerity and pour gigantic pots of the green stuff into building broadband infrastructure to every single corner of this little island. I'm not talking about promising households "up to 2Mbps" or even "up to 20Mbps" but a neutral network that delivers speeds upwards of one terabit per second to every household by 2020.

If we harbour serious ambitions to be technology leaders, then give every member of the population access to technology and robust neutral high speed networks. Then get out of the way and watch the human, constructive, social, technological, economic, commercial magic in that technological playpen.

Sadly, much of what passes for technology policy is likely to continue to be driven by the Home Office. Home Secretary Theresa May's obsession with the thoroughly discredited Communications Data Bill aka Snoopers' charter, is a top priority. Though the BBC reports (from 07:50) that the Snoopers charter is being handed to Mrs May's best mate, Michael Gove, in his new Justice Secretary role.  Whichever of them takes it on (and Home Office & Justice ministry insiders still believe it is the Home Office's responsibility) the government mean to reinforce and expand information systems and laws facilitating mass surveillance.

No amount of explanations that mass surveillance is dangerous and doesn't work ever gets through to the largely technologically illiterate MPs in Parliament - proportionately few have any scientific or technology training or background. Government ministers tend to avoid understanding something, when their jobs, and future tilts at the Tory leadership depend, on them not understanding it.

Effective law enforcement and intelligence work is complex, messy and difficult. Unfortunately Home and Justice Secretaries, under the gaze of the 24/7 news media, don't have the luxury of managing complex, messy and difficult. They need clear, simple and immediate actions and apparent solutions. 

Mrs May is concerned to be perceived as tough on crime and terrorism, repeatedly declaring a determination to give the security services everything they need - a phrase which, unlike the approval rating it gets in the UK, sends a shiver of fear down the spines of most continental Europeans, whose countries have experienced histories of totalitarian governance. Law enforcement and security services need to use modern digital technologies intelligently in their work and through targeted data preservation regimes – not the mass surveillance regime they are currently operating – engage in technological surveillance of individuals about whom they have reasonable cause to harbour suspicion. That is not, however, the same as building and enabling the legal operation of an infrastructure of mass surveillance.

The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament recently reported that "bulk collection" of communications data is acceptable because most of the data is only ever "seen" by computers. By that measure Mrs May & Mr Gove should install a top of the range CCTV camera in every room in every building in the country. They'll only use the footage if it becomes necessary, you see.

Yet not once, in the 14 years since the dreadful 9/11 attacks, on either side of the Atlantic, have mass surveillance magic terrorist catching machines ever been publicly,* credibly and specifically shown to identify a terrorist suspect pre-emptively.

Big data
Successive UK governments for a long time have not had a great record at managing large tranches of electronic data. On the promise of major medical breakthroughs both partners in the previous coalition government bought into the notion of big data in healthcare. The Tories are keen on privatising the health service. Making medical data available on a wide scale to medical researchers and industry is considered a no brainer, in the newly populated corridors of power.

The now dismantled Nu Labour National Programme for IT in the NHS was arguably the largest ever government IT disaster. But the coalition were and now the new Conservative government are keen to press forward with privacy-destroying management of NHS information systems and the further centralisation of medical records, in the ill-conceived programme.

Government can't lose by claiming they are spending more on the NHS, even if it is on information systems that won't work; and in practice cause untold havoc in the long term. 

There is a serious question about facilitating constructive, enlightening, ethical, socially useful research into healthcare big data whilst protecting medical confidentiality. But it should not be done by letting government circumvent human rights law guarantees to privacy. It needs to be governed by a set of principles such as those set out in the Nuffield Bioethics Council report on the ethical use of data.
  • treat people as individuals worthy of respect and not as industrial raw material - the principle of respect for persons
  • abide by all relevant laws including human rights laws - the principle of respect for established human rights
  • tell people what you are doing with their data and consult them properly and regularly - the principle of participation of those with morally relevant interests
  • account for what you've done with the data and tell people if things go wrong - the principle of accounting for decisions

Human Rights Act
It's a little sad that 70 years on from VE day that 24.3% of eligible voters of the great British public apparently support the abolition of the Human Rights Act. In an information age, information and, by proxy, technology policy becomes human rights policy. The new government want to replace the Human Rights Act with a proper British Bill of Rights for proper, deserving, British people and not be dictated to by those
unelected European judges. The Tories' proposals for the Bill of Rights suggest it would include all of the rights currently protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (and, therefore, the Human Rights Act) but judicial protection would be denied to those rights judged to be “trivial”. Just as a matter of interest, which of -
  • Obligation to respect Human Rights
  • Right to life
  • Prohibition of torture
  • Prohibition of slavery and forced labour
  • Right to liberty and security
  • Right to a fair trial
  • No punishment without law
  • Right to respect for private and family life
  • Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
  • Freedom of expression
  • Freedom of assembly and association
  • Right to an effective remedy
  • Prohibition of discrimination
  • Prohibition of abuse of rights
- would you consider trivial? If you'd like a lesson on what any of these mean in practice may I recommend a couple of minutes at day at the recently launched Rights Info site. Pay particular attention to the human rights myths section - every one of these myths has been trotted out by the mainstream media and governing politicians of varying flavours in the past ten years. Theresa May featured the pet cat story at her Tory conference speech in 2011. Michael Gove has apparently been given charge of the Bill of Rights job.

Plans to ban encryption
Much mockery has been poured by the tech community on David Cameron's plans and the FBI's desire to ban encryption and provide mandatory back doors to government. Basically it won't work as a crime/terrorism prevention measure. And it definitely would not be cost effective. Banning Transport Layer Security (TLS) and its predecessor, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) would be very costly. It would lead to further mass data silos, useless for preventing nefarious actors engaging in attacks.

Think of it as every householder delivering copies of their door keys to the local police station, just in case the police would like to search any house without breaking the door down. No self-respecting crime syndicate is going to systematically break into multiple houses when they can break into the police station first to get all the keys; or encourage or coerce an insider to provide them with copies of the keys.

The rest
I could go on – there are a host of really important technology related issues to play out in the next 5 years, including: 
  • Web blocking & age verification – think of the children and the poor copyright conglomerates
  • Counter Terrorism & Security Act 2015 "prevent" duties – about to spawn a veritable bureaucratic industry
  • EU data protection measures promised by the end 2015 – that’ll be fun
  • Intellectual property – a complex black hole that determines control of information
- but you, dear reader, have already been inordinately patient. 

So I will close with a question.

70 years on from VE day, given the surveillance society we have built since the turn of the century and intend to expand and reinforce over the next 5 years, can we really be seen to be honouring the sacrifice of those who died to win our freedoms and a lasting peace, founded on justice and good will; or, as John Naughton so eloquently puts it, does our  indolence constitute “a shocking case study of what complacent ignorance can do to a democracy”?

* Updated for clarification to add the word "publicly".

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