Friday, February 01, 2008

HM Government "collects more data than the Stasi"

According to Timothy Garton Ash, who writes in the Guardian.

This has got to stop. Britain's snooper state is getting completely out of hand. We are sleepwalking into a surveillance society, and we must wake up. When the Stasi started spying on me, as I moved around East Germany 30 years ago, I travelled on the assumption that I was coming from one of the freest countries in the world to one of the least free. I don't think I was wrong then, but I would certainly be wrong now. Today, the people of East Germany are much less spied upon than the people of Britain. The human rights group Privacy International rates Britain as an "endemic surveillance society", along with China and Russia, whereas Germany scores much better.

An official report by Britain's interception of communications commissioner has just revealed that nearly 800 public bodies are between them making an average of nearly 1,000 requests a day for "communications data", including actual phone taps, mobile phone records, email or web search histories, not to mention old-fashioned snail mail. The Home Office website notes that all communication service providers "may be served with a notice by the secretary of state requiring them to maintain a permanent intercept capability. In practice, agreement is always reached by consultation and negotiation." How reassuring.

The cell phone networks have been configured for legal wiretapping for a long time now. For example a recent case in Greece, parties unknown simply called the utilities in Ericsson's AXE system to perform an unlawful intercept.

In modern mobile telecommunication networks, legal wiretaps, known as lawful interceptions, are preformed at the switch. Ericsson AXE telephone exchanges support lawful intercepts via the remote-control equipment subsystem (RES), which carries out the tap, and the interception management system (IMS), software used to initiate the tap which adds the tap to the RES database. In a fully operating lawful interception system the RES and IMS both create logs of all numbers being taped so that system administrators can preform audits to find unauthorized taps.

The wiretapping infrastructure is there. And it's going to be used. The attack and defense of the information infrastructure inadvertently creates a technological arms race in which both sides get more sophisticated. The defense of any network -- and the Internet is no exception -- relies to a large extent on having a profile of its "normal" activities. Statistics based on huge samples and datasets are used to create a picture of what should be. Just as when a person knows something has been disturbed on a tabletop with which he is intimately familiar, so must network defenders have a way of spotting "anomalies". But this in turn creates threats to those who, often for legitimate reasons, want to do new things. For example. The RIAA wants to monitor peer-to-peer traffic on the Internet, but advocates of privacy want to prevent them from doing so. In order to frustrate the Internet monitors the privacy advocates use all kinds of ways to obfuscate or encrypt their information. This in turn leads to even greater investments in monitoring and cryptanlysis.

Sometimes public policy goes off in two different directions at once. Privacy laws mandate that data should be protected, while anti-terrorism laws provide that in certain respects they should be monitored. Recently a group of law professors denounced "online mobs" operating under cover of anonymity. But the same law professors might object to requiring everyone who went online to swipe an identity card into a reader before accessing the Internet. Somehow the balance must be struck, but not before there's collateral damage to the little guy. Perhaps the saddest story of the last week concerned a "59-year-old PG&E worker and his wife, who were mistakenly flagged as pro-Scientology hackers" and had his home address, phone number, cell numbers, Social Security number dragged through the Internet through no fault of his own by a shadowy group called Anonymous. The big bad boys on the network can more than take care of themselves in this "arms race" but the ordinary man must trust to luck.


Blogger El Baboso said...

I think that the Brits are scared out of their minds by the Islamists. Their having to depend so heavily on surveillance seems to indicate that their intelligence services have not done a good job of penetrating the Islamist networks and Muslim communities.

This is in stark contrast to WWII. According to the received narrative, the Brits infiltrated and turned every single Axis spy network on their soil.

After 9/11, there were a lot of nudge, nudge - wink, wink statements coming out of the British intel community. Don't worry. We'll take care of things like we always have. After 7/7, the leaked reports and spooks being quoted in the press have sounded pretty panicky.

My assessment: A massive surveillance program is a sign of weakness. It was in the Soviet Bloc and it is now in the UK.

2/02/2008 06:06:00 AM  
Blogger Stephen Renico said...

El baboso said,
"I think that the Brits are scared out of their minds by the Islamists. Their having to depend so heavily on surveillance seems to indicate that their intelligence services have not done a good job of penetrating the Islamist networks and Muslim communities."

Strange, then, how they bend over backwards to appease them, or, at the very least, display a willful ignorance of their activities.

2/02/2008 06:20:00 AM  
Blogger Aristides said...

This is an important issue, and I wish more people would think about it seriously.

Is there a way out of the surveillance society? I really don't think so.

Note, this is not a valuation of the issue. I don't particularly want to live in a surveillance society. It's just that I don't see any way out of it. We've crossed the threshold, and we're in the process of "locking in" to equilibria. The only question is, what will the equilibrium ultimately look like?

This would not be the case if we all behaved in an ethically optimal way, but the collapse of a unitary ethic in Western society, and the rise of existential randomization, has led to a situation where error rates in human-human interactions are much too high for the social organism to deal with. Add to this the inability of Western society to guard against parasites and viruses, and we must conclude the situation is unstable. And, when a system is unstable, it's natural inclination is to random-walk to a situation that is stable. The other option is 'collapse.'

Sorry, but I have to conclude that we are way past the point where we can stop this thing through an ethical renaissance. Absent a collapse or revolution, Western society has locked in to the surveillance society as the most efficient way to guard against and mitigate the errors in the system.

Thus, and again I wish this wasn't so, but I must conclude that our only choice in the matter is to face this reality head on, get out in front of it conceptually, and work over the next several years to build the softest landing possible. In America, this means an acceptance of surveillance anytime you plug into the "Network" -- phone, internet, public property, etc.

Luckily, Constitutional Law has concepts like "due process", "expectations of privacy", and "exclusionary rule of evidence" well-established and elaborated. We can use this to construct a paradigm of protection for the individual, for the home, etc., keeping in mind that fundamental freedoms of association, speech, and religion do not guarantee "privacy" unless the individual takes affirmative steps to acquire an "expectation" of it. In the surveillance society, your home has an expectation of privacy, for instance, but the network does not.

But who will watch the watchers? This is by far the most important issue, and the place where we can really make a difference if we get out in front of it. I think the answer to that must be to build two or three balancing "branches" of surveillance, each answerable to a specific branch of government, each watching each. Of course, that is just off-the-cuff, but something like that.

This is not going to go away. There are too many virtues to the surveillance society, and too few virtues in the human beings which make it up, to avoid it. But, because there are also many possible evils to such a Leviathan, it is incumbent upon us to do what we can, NOW, to neutralize them.

2/02/2008 09:25:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

I don't think surveillance, per se, is an issue or even a threat. As we have seen multiple times in America, England and other European countries, juries have pretty high standards when it comes to a government proving a case, and routinely set free people the rest of us would like to see in Gitmo for the rest of their long little lives.

As long as there is a system of jurisprudence in place that enables citizens to air their cases in public, we're OK. And governments will be careful, too, about what they choose to do with the information they're accumulating because if they step wrong, we'll sue their asses for defamation, emotional suffering, wrongful arrest, and just being plain ugly.

Any problem with surveillance would come if people start being "disappeared" without recourse to the courts and juries. As far as I know, this is not happening to anyone unless their name is "Achmed" or they're in South America.

Nixon had his enemies list, the Clinton's had their FBI files, and J Edgar Hoover used *his* resources to blackmail everyone up to and including JFK, RFK, and MLK. And no one seems worse the wear for those surveillance programs.

No, what we need to watch out for is whether the guy on the block down the street heard a knock on the door in the middle of the night and was never seen again. And in America, given that the guy down the street might have an Uzi hidden under his bed, who-ever's knocking on his door at 3:00 in the morning had better be damned serious.

2/02/2008 10:33:00 AM  

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