The surveillance policy that would not die

3 April 2012

I was sent yesterday articles about the new round of policy proposals related to Internet surveillance and traffic data monitoring (bbc, guardian). What is depressing, but also really revealing, is how similar both the sought powers, as well as the arguments for those powers are to previous attempts, just a few years ago.

In their essence the powers seek to extend the ability of law enforcement agencies to have access to all Internet traffic data, a power that they largely already have when it come to conventional telecommunications, or email services. What are traffic data? Everything that you have not typed as a message: the identity and time of your facebook chats, your facebook likes, the log of the visits to all web-pages, the clicks on on-line polls, the location data your phone sends to access on-line location services, the times and places you were in the same chat room with your friends, your on-line friends, etc. Basically you can think of blanket traffic data retention and access as having a policeman following you around 24h a day / 7 days a week, and making notes about where you have been, what you have looked at, who you are talking to, what you are doing, where you are sleeping (and with whom), everything you bought, every political and trade union meeting you went to, … – but not actually hearning any of the conversation or seeing what you wrote. Traffic data provide an X-ray of your whole life, and the policy suggests they should be available to law enforcement and the intelligence services without any judicial oversight (only political review or police oversight).

As has been discussed many times before recording all this information is very expensive, unlikely to ever be totally comprehensive, technically nearly infeasible, and prone to over-collection and abuse. In fact a focus on “more data” detracts attention from careful on-the-ground case work, and turns policing into a computer game you cannot win. A lot of data is already sitting on databases, and can be accessed by police — in fact police are under-equipped, under trained and under resourced to make use of those investigative resources, let alone more raw data. The focus on ubiquitous surveillance also increases concerns about privacy, and the ideas that everything communicated can be used against a person puts a brake on the adoption of information technologies like computational clouds.

On that basis the conservative and libdem opposition has in the past argued against those measures. They are now in government so one would think that this debate in not necessary. Yet, the internet surveillance plans are back on the table! What is going on here?

This time around, I personally think, that the campaign against those measures should also seek to dislodge those in the permanent and non-elected institutions of the state, that keep bringing back on the table this policy. I find it very hard to believe that these near carbon copy proposal naturally “re-emerge” despite the prolonged public debaes against them. It is much more likely that the policy is simply repackaged and presented anew to every new minister by career civil servants, under permanent pressures from the agencies.

I find it troubling that there is a non-elected set of institutions of the state that have as a permanent policy agenda to undermine civil liberties, despite consistently losing the public debate when specific powers are considered by Parliament. I would call this political subversion. What is even more troubling is that the architects of such policies are hiding under the cloak of secrecy, making it impossible for those outside government and the security services to really call them to account. I appreciate that operational necessities mean that some aspects of the security services’ work must remain secret. Yet, I cannot see why the branch of the security services that aims to directly affect public policy, through pushing a permanent agenda of ubiquitous surveillance, should enjoy that privilege.

Today Theresa May, our home secretary “insisted only data – times, dates, numbers and addresses – not content would be accessible” and that “ordinary people” had nothing to fear. Requesting such information about the communications between the home office, civil servants, and the members of the security services that advised them about this policy may change her opinion about how sensitive such information is. In fact, she may discover that providing such a map of the policy campaign and network of support, gives the opponents of the policy an undeniable advantage. I am very much looking forward to turning my automated social network analysis tools on their call graphs and email logs, and providing all results and intuitions to journalists.

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