Data Privacy and Security

Rant: Your Computer Says You're A Terrorist

One must always tread carefully when discussing politics. But since the UK's new 'DRIP' emergency snooping legislation has been voted through by all three major parties this week, I can safely rant about it without setting one party's supporters against another's.

This is the legislation that was agreed behind closed doors, with supposed concessions to privacy and the re-evaluation of existing surveillance legislation that, on closer reading, take away far more than they give back.

None of the mainstream political parties will say a word against it, leaving just a few maverick MPs to complain in parliament that its passage makes a mockery of the democratic process. Supporters say the legislation is necessary because of paedophiles and terrorists (who else?). Any dissenters are shouted down with such well-reasoned and thoughtful arguments as "If you're not in favour of this, you want people to be blown up!"

Yet online reaction to this bill seems to be about 10% in favour, 70% against, the rest preferring the milder option of revolution to remove all three main parties from power and replace them with someone sane (good luck with that: Lord Acton still applies).

As ever, it's those with technical knowledge who are most vehemently against any increase in surveillance-by-data. People who have worked in IT for any length of time tend to be jaded about the database state in all its forms, whether it's the Identity Card fiasco or the current plans to keep – and trawl through – all our phone records and internet histories.

Sure, it's for paedophiles and terrorists now. But next year it'll be for failing to put your bins out on the right day. Temporary legislation has a habit of becoming permanent. And if the computer's wrong? But the computer's never wrong. Anyway, who's going to check the algorithms, which are far too complex for any one human to comprehend?

It's painfully obvious that politicians and senior public servants don't properly understand the moral and ethical consequences of such uses of technology, and are invincible in their ignorance. Along similar lines, witness the head of HMRC, Lin Homer, giving evidence about controversial new powers to simply take money out of people's bank accounts if HMRC believes they owe it. When asked whether this could push poor people into destitution, she said that wasn't a problem because HMRC would just access the victim's past 12 months' spending details to see if they could afford it. So they'll only dip into your account if they've spied on you for a year to ensure you aren't wasting money on such fripperies as food and entertainment? That's OK then.

Accessing private computer, phone and banking records reduces human agency to mere patterns of data. It changes the action of the law if not its wording, decreases the burden of proof and shifts the balance of evidence so that accused people become guilty until proved innocent rather than the other way around.

Of course it's appealing to use data in such ways because it does produce results: some paedophiles and terrorists will be caught, though arguably the stupid ones. But only at the expense of dramatically reducing the free agency of everyone else in the country. Behaviour observation is behaviour modification, which is one of many reasons why the Germans are busy expelling US spies. When we are watched we cease to be free.

I fly in aeroplanes and I have children, yet I'd rather take my chances with terrorists and paedophiles than be ruled by a government that believes routinely spying on its citizens via their web and phone data is synonymous with freedom. I doubt I'm the only one, but because this bill was deliberately rushed through without debate or time for feedback from MPs' constituents, we'll never know what voters actually think about it.

With this emergency legislation everybody will be watched (though I can't help thinking there'll be an exemption for MPs). Everything you do online, every phone call you make, every text message, every communication, all of it kept, trawled through, analysed and inspected to see if you're a threat, where "threat" is a variable that means whatever someone in power wants it to mean this week.

And freedom? Don't worry about that. You're still perfectly free to do what they want you to do.


Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business.



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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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