Filed Under: People, Privacy and security

Tough choices

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The relationship between identity and privacy is deep: privacy (in the sense of control over data associated with an identity) ought to be facilitated by the identity infrastructure. But that control cannot be absolute: society needs a balance in order to function, so the infrastructure ought to include a mechanism for making that balance explicit. It is very easy to set the balance in the wrong place even with the best of intentions. And once the balance is set in the wrong place, it may have most undesirable consequences.

An obsession with child protection in the UK and throughout the EU is encouraging a cavalier approach to law-making, which less democratic regimes are using to justify much broader repression on any speech seen as extreme or dangerous…. “The UK and EU are supporting measures that allow for websites to be censored on the basis of purely administrative processes, without need for judicial oversight.”

[From Net censors use UK’s kid-safety frenzy to justify clampdown • The Register]

So a politician in one country decides, say, that we should all be able to read out neighbour’s emails just in case our neighbour is a pervert or serial killer or terrorist and the next thing we know is that Iranian government supporters in the UK are reading their neighbours emails and passing on their details to a hit squad if the emails contain any anti-regime comments.

By requiring law enforcement backdoors, we open ourselves to surveillance by hackers and foreign intelligence agencies

[From slight paranoia: Web 2.0 FBI backdoors are bad for national security]

This is, of course, absolutely correct, and it was shown in relief today when I read that…

Some day soon, when pro-democracy campaigners have their cellphones confiscated by police, they’ll be able to hit the “panic button” — a special app that will both wipe out the phone’s address book and emit emergency alerts to other activists… one of the new technologies the U.S. State Department is promoting to equip pro-democracy activists in countries ranging from the Middle East to China with the tools to fight back against repressive governments.

[From U.S. develops panic button for democracy activists | Reuters]

Surely this also means that terrorists about to execute a dastardly plot in the US will be able to wipe their mobile phones and alert their co-conspirators when the FBI knock on the door and, to use the emotive example, that child pornographers will be able to wipe their phones and alert fellow abusers when the police come calling. Tough choices indeed. We want to protect individual freedom so we must create private space. And yet we still need some kind of “smash the glass” option, because criminals do use the interweb tubes and there are legitimate law enforcement and national security interests here. Perhaps, however, the way forward to move away from the idea of balance completely.

In my own area of study, the familiar trope of “balancing privacy and security” is a source of constant frustration to privacy advocates, because while there are clearly sometimes tradeoffs between the two, it often seems that the zero-sum rhetoric of “balancing” leads people to view them as always in conflict. This is, I suspect, the source of much of the psychological appeal of “security theater”: If we implicitly think of privacy and security as balanced on a scale, a loss of privacy is ipso facto a gain in security. It sounds silly when stated explicitly, but the power of frames is precisely that they shape our thinking without being stated explicitly.

[From The Trouble With “Balance” Metaphors]

This is a great point, and when I read it it immediately helped me to think more clearly. There is no evidence that taking away privacy improves security, so it’s purely a matter of security theatre.

Retaining telecommunications data is no help in fighting crime, according to a study of German police statistics, released Thursday. Indeed, it could even make matters worse… This is because users began to employ avoidance techniques, says AK Vorrat.

[From Retaining Data Does Not Help Fight Crime, Says Group – PCWorld]

This is precisely the trajectory that we will all be following. The twin pressures from Big Content and law enforcement mean that the monitoring, recording and analysis of internet traffic is inevitable. But it will also be largely pointless, as my own recent experiences have proven. When I was in China, I wanted to use Twitter but it was blocked. So I logged in to a VPN back in the UK and twittered away. When I wanted to listen to the football on Radio 5 while in Spain, the BBC told me that I couldn’t, so I logged back in to my VPN and cheered the Blues. When I want to watch “The Daily Show” from the UK or when I want to watch “The Killing” via iPlayer in the US, I just go via VPN.

I’m surprised more ISPs don’t offer this as value-added service themselves. I already pay £100 per month for my Virgin triple-play (50Mb/s broadband, digital TV and telephone, so another £5 per month for OpenVPN would suit me fine).

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