Surveillance: It’s not all about you

The Investigatory Powers Bill will be published tomorrow.  The Home Secretary will set out her vision for what snooping powers the security services should have in their tool-box, and also what oversight parliament, the judiciary, and independent ‘watchdogs’ should have over the use of those powers.

I work for English PEN, one of the six organisations leading the Don’t Spy On Us campaign.  Be in no doubt I will be sharing our analysis of the proposed new law and recommendations for improvement.

A constant issue regarding civil liberties (and one that we have discussed before on these pages) is how to convince members of the public to care about human rights when few of us ever actually experience a violation of those rights.  In the past, I have discussed the idea of ‘everyday rights‘ and the notion that, even if we are not tortured or detained, our lives are made marginally worse when our rights are eroded, even in small ways. Continue reading “Surveillance: It’s not all about you”

Hack the Paparazzi Market

The Duke and Dutchess of Cambridge are angry at the paparazzi pursing Prince George and Princess Charlotte in public places.

Here’s one idea that might make the paparazzi go away – undercut them.

How about the Royals employ a photographer to take a steady stream of snaps of the family, in a similar manner to Barack Obama’s official Whitehouse photographer.  Snaps of official engagements would likely be free and creative commons.  But images where the personal photographer ostensibly has exclusive access could be made available to agencies for a fee.  The money paid for any particular image could be donated to one of the Duke and Dutchess’s many charities.  Quite a large fee could be charged, and yet still undercut the paparazzi’s asking price, making images of the Royals far less profitable.  The harassment should dissipate.

Yes, this does equate to the selling of privacy and not something I’d choose for myself.  But for the children that our perverse political system designates as future Heads of State, it may be a better option than what they endure at the moment, and help those less fortunate in the process.

Dear Lord King: Ludditry is not cool, it’s dangerous

Oh! This puts me in such a bad mood.

https://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/560082501075742721

Lord King is author of amendments tabled last week to the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill. They would have granted the government surveillance powers without proper checks and balances. Arguing in favour of the changes, Lord King admitted he did not use social media and did not understand apps like WhatsApp or SnapChat. Continue reading “Dear Lord King: Ludditry is not cool, it’s dangerous”

Surveillance changes the “Psyche of the Community”

When we debate surveillance (whether its CCTV or snooping on our e-mails) the debate is usually framed as a trade off between civil liberties and security.  Its the right to privacy versus the right to be protected from crime.  Often, civil libertarians seek to win the argument by highlighting how the State can be tyrannical, oppressive, corrupt… or unworthy of trust.  Our governments are compared literary dystopias like Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four or to real-life dictatorships like North Korea.  These arguments are persuasive to some.

But as I have discussed previously, this approach does not persuade everyone.  And by deploying these arguments, civil liberties campaigners actually leave themselves exposed.  What if you do not believe that (say) the UK is as bad as North Korea?  What if you think that, on balance, Teresa May, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe and Robert Hannigan are actually on our side and not out to seize tyrannical control of the people?  All this chat about nefarious government agents acting like the Stasi will simply not persuade. 

When we talk about surveillance, we need to talk about The Observer Effect.  In physics, this is the concept that says that by measuring something, you change it.  And  we’re talking about surveillance, The Observer Effect means that simply by watching someone, you change their behaviour. Continue reading “Surveillance changes the “Psyche of the Community””

"Nothing to hide, nothing to fear"? Two Retorts

One of the most pernicious, lazy and irritating arguments for mass surveillance is “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”.  I’ve dealt with cursory responses to this before: “Why do you have curtains, then?” is the best short response, in my opinion.

But behind the glib cliche is a more subtle argument.  Politicians, in arguing for surveillance, seek to reassure us that the powers they seek (and have recently awarded themselves) would never be used against ‘ordinary’ people.  They hope that we have forgotten Paster Neimoller’s ‘And Then They Came For Me’ poem… or that we assume it does not apply to us.  They want us to believe that their power of surveillance is so they can keep an eye on other people.  In this manner, the public consent to more powers, and barely notice when the security services abuse these powers to attack the free press.

Here are two sophisticated arguments against even responsible governments having mass surveillance powers.  First, the philosopher Quentin Skinner, in conversation with journalist Richard Marshall.  I quote at length without apology: Continue reading “"Nothing to hide, nothing to fear"? Two Retorts”

Free encryption for Outlook and Apple Mail

What with the Heartbleed exploit, and approaching anniversary of the Edward Snowden revelations, I have been doing a lot of thinking about encryption of my e-mails and digital files.  A couple of weeks ago, at the FairSay e-Campaigning forum, I had a good chat with the folk from Open Rights Group who encouraged me to set up OwnCloud (which I’ve already done) and install open-source encryption for my e-mail.

I operate computers using both Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X, and use the standard mail applications for each.  Its not too hard to find open source encryption for these programmes, but I thought I would oil the cogs of the Internet by linking to them here.

gpg4win is the free and open-source encryption tool for Microsfot Outlook.  Installation is a relatively simple procedure and the end result is that you get an extra menu item, ‘Add Ins’, which has a big ‘encrypt this message’ button on it.  GPGTools is an analogus appliocation for Apple Mail on a Mac. Installation is just as easy—a single click to run the installer—and little ‘encrypt’ and ‘sign’ icons appear alongside the signature icons in a mail compose window. Continue reading “Free encryption for Outlook and Apple Mail”

OwnCloud, an open source alternative to DropBox

My previous two posts were about the angst of privileged middle classes. I wrote first about the middle class habit of moving into the catchment area for good schools. Then I excused our tendency to maintain a less-than ethical existence. Untrained eyes could be forgiven for mistaking my motives in writing these posts. Am I not simply trying to assuage my own guilt at doing precisely those things?

Not so. I feel far less guilty about my complicity in all those middle-class clichés than perhaps I should. Rather, both posts were digressions of this one, in which I shall briefly discuss the ethics of Internet apps.

Continue reading “OwnCloud, an open source alternative to DropBox”

Discussing Privacy on AsianCorrespondent.com

Do you remember the so-called scandal earlier this month, when it was revealed that UCAS (the charitable company that administers university applications and admissions) was selling on students’ contact details to advertisers?  Charlotte Sexauer of AsianCorrespondent.com delved deeper into the story, and found that there may be less to the controversy than we first assumed:

Essentially, therefore, it would appear as though what UCAS is doing is the same as any other online business – namely, asking students’ permission to send them emails for products that are likely to appeal to them.

I spoke to Charlotte about the issue and my comments were included in her article.  Here I am, riffing on the conceptual difference between the personal information we choose to share on Facebook, and the data that companies hold on us:

The fact that people post reams of data to Facebook is often given as an excuse for companies trading in our personal data, our online activity and our commercial activity,” he says. “But there’s a huge conceptual difference between data we can control and delete, and data stored in a computer record we do not have access to.  Opting out of Facebook may be socially difficult, but anyone can do it in a matter of moments.  Likewise, opting out of the Nectar Card programme is as simple as cutting the purple card in half.  But opting out of a database that you do not even know you are on is a much harder proposition.

More comments here.

Discrediting Assange

Andrew O’Hagan’s London Review of Books essay on the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is quite something. Hired to ghostwrite Assange’s autobiography, O’Hagan spent many months with the hacker while he was on bail and living in a country house in Norfolk. The essay describes Julian Assange’s erratic, selfish and sometimes delusional personality that caused the book project to wither.

I’ve heard some people call the essay ‘a hatchet job’ but it is more subtle than that. The piece seethes and scathes, but I don’t detect a sneer or anything to suggest that it seeks to pull Julian Assange down a peg.

Rather, its a literary catharsis. O’Hagan is a man squeezed between the exasperating Assange and the bolshy publisher Jamie Byng, a position he clearly finds deeply uncomfortable. The story reads as incredibly sincere, which also makes it credible and compelling.

There’s no doubt that O’Hagan’s essay zips up the body bag on Assange’s already brutalised reputation. His protagonist (for, by the end, Assange has become a character, a ‘cipher’) is unquestionably the author of his own downfall. Nevertheless, there remains a certain unease in the fact that this essay has been published in the same week as some more damning revelations about the practices of GCHQ.

Writing on First Look Media’s Interceptor blog, Glenn Greenwald (the journalist who took receipt of Edward Snowden’s cache of NSA documents) exposes the paychological techniques deployed by our the security services. His article is titled ‘How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations’ and presents leaked GCHQ slides that describe the techniques used by JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). The group allegedly deploys techniques developed by behavioural scientists to break up political groups that they perceive to be a threat to national security. They use agents provocateurs, False Flag operations, and even ruin business and personal relationships through the hacking of social media and e-mail accounts. ‘Honey Traps’ are also mentioned.

Its impossible to know which, if any, of these techniques have been used against Wikileaks and Julian Assange, but I don’t think it would be particularly outlandish or paranoid to imagine that the group have been the target of this sort of action. I don’t know how the public, and targets of such covert government attacks, can counter the misinformation… But I do know that Assange’s chaotic response, and his decision to avoid the chance to clear his name, is not the way to go about it.

Protect whistleblowers to protect the leaks

If O’Hagan’s account is to be believed (and the hours of tape recordings lends weight to his account) then Julian Assange is actually quite careless with the sensitive data he handles. In an op-ed in the Independent, my colleague Mile Harris points out that this is a reason to protect and encourage whistleblowers. Far better that those who handle leaked information treat it with care. By aggressively prosecuting the act of whistleblowing, we ensure that future leakers are likely to be in the Assange mould—unreliable and careless.