Sunday, June 23, 2013

Like It or Not, We Live in a National Security State

A prescient warning from The Observer's John Naughton.  Western democracies have been overwhelmed by a technology flood and have been transformed, willingly or otherwise, into true national security states.   We have been caught unawares, taken to a place from which it may be extremely difficult to ever get back.

Will the revelation that GCHQ taps every internet communication that enters or leaves the UK mark the moment when ordinary citizens stop and say: "Oh, now I get it." A moment when people realise that the stuff that nerds and activists had been droning on about might actually affect them?

My hunch is that it isn't such a moment. Most people will just shrug their shoulders and get on with life. They will accept the assurances of those in authority and move on. If they do, then they will have missed something important. It is that our democracies have indeed reached a pivotal point. Ever since it first became clear that the internet was going to become the nervous system of the planet, the 64 billion dollar question was whether it would be "captured" by giant corporations or by governments. Now we know the answer: it's "both".

...Computer power has been obeying Moore's Law – doubling every two years – for nigh on four decades. Network bandwidth has been tripling every year. Ditto digital storage capacity.

...But it's not just citizens who are behind the technological curve. Our political leaders seem similarly clueless.

...But very few MPs seemed to appreciate that you can't "wiretap" email the way one can bug a phone. As a result, they were blind to the sweeping nature of the powers that Ripa would confer on the state.

...In the last two weeks, the adjective "Orwellian" has been widely deployed. But "Kafkaesque" seems more appropriate to the situation in which we find ourselves. The conversation between the state and the citizen has been reduced to a dialogue that the writer would have recognised. It goes like this.

State Although intrusive surveillance does infringe a few liberties, it's necessary if you are to be protected from terrible things.

Citizen (anxiously) What terrible things?

State Can't tell you, I'm afraid, but believe us they are truly terrible. And, by the way, surveillance has already prevented some terrible things.

Citizen Such as?

State Sorry, can't go into details about those either.

Citizen So how do I know that this surveillance racket isn't just bureaucratic empire building?

State You don't need to worry about that because it's all done under legal authority.

Citizen So how does that work?

State Regrettably, we can't go into details because if we did so then the bad guys might get some ideas.

What it comes down to, in the end, is: "Trust us." And the trouble with that is that in recent decades our political elites have done precious little to deserve our trust. Now we're being asked to suspend our disbelief as they eavesdrop on all of our online activities – to trust them, in a way, with the most intimate details of our social and private lives.

What we're witnessing is the metamorphosis of our democracies into national security states in which the prerogatives of security authorities trump every other consideration and in which critical or sceptical appraisal of them is ruled out of court.

In the UK, for example, we've watched GCHQ – the organisation that emerged from the huts of Bletchley Park, trailing clouds of Enigma glory – swell into a gigantic bureaucracy whose remit includes cyber-crime and cyber-espionage and, now, eavesdropping on its own citizens. In the world of organisational politics, there is a term for this: mission creep. And with it comes the kind of swaggering hubris implicit in the name chosen for the cable-tapping project: Mastering the Internet. Says it all, really.

Unfortunately in Canada this is an issue that is really struggling to get any political traction.    A few people are concerned, fewer still are concerned enough to want the problem exposed and resolved.  And, of course, summer is upon us and Parliament in recess.   With a collective memory span of the common fruit fly we'll have long forgotten about this come September.

And, don't forget, when they say "trust us" they're actually asking that you entrust your privacy to a person who might have the integrity of a Dick Cheney or his Canadian equivalent, Stephen Harper.


Anonymous said...

The people aren't bright enough to worry about anything other than "the Housewife's of Never-Never Land".
This is illustrated by how many people vote or can name anything other than the goal tender on their favourite hockey team.

Purple library guy said...

It wouldn't be difficult to go back.
Cut the funding, don't rehire the contractors, scatter the employees to other departments or sack them. Badabing.

The political will is a problem. The security mindset is a problem. Doing representative democracy in such a way that politicians who promised to do it actually would once elected is a problem.

The technology isn't a problem. The technology exists to do lots of things we don't in fact do (save billions a year by ending homelessness, f'rinstance). Technology only gets made use of by government if there's a budget for it.

The Mound of Sound said...

The public will isn't there and neither is the political will. We don't have the sort of political leadership, here in Canada or among our allies, to sweep the stalls. Do you see any Liberals or New Democrats clamoring to undo this? I don't.

Lorne said...

I read a heartfelt letter last week from, I believe, a vet who stated that just as measures had to be taken against the enemy during WW11, the surrendering of a little privacy is just the cost of the battle against terroris. Underpinning his observation was the belief that government can be trusted not to abuse its power, Mound, something that your post makes clear is not a safe assumption.

The Mound of Sound said...

Lorne, I know how my Dad, himself a badly wounded WWII infantry officer, would have replied to that fellow. The first word would have been "horse."

This goes far beyond a "little privacy" and it's a freedom that's being permanently lost to a mix of characters that includes, at times, some truly unscrupulous people, the sort freely willing to subvert the public interest to their own.