David Cameron and the erosion of civil liberties
I don’t normally get into politics here, however the comments made by the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron, hot on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo murders, regarding his government’s desire to outlaw encrypted communications have changed that. The remarks are about how they cannot freely read, (as they do with UK mail and phone calls now), or that there would be legislated back-doors built into encryption software, thereby rendering personal online security and privacy non-existent.
His argument is a classic one made by fear-mongering politicians who use any excuse to scare their constituents into doing what they want, which is usually to secure additional powers of control for them or their government. It implies that if they were able to read the encrypted communications of the citizens of the UK, and those of the murderers at Charlie Hebdo, they would have been able to prevent the shootings. This extremely unlikely scenario would rely completely on the proper authorities already knowing about these individuals and being in the process of investigating them. The only other way would be to do as the NSA has been found to be doing, where they are collecting all of the communications that they can access, and taking it a step farther with actually reading them all rather than archiving them for future uses.
Many of these politicians attempting to strike fear into the hearts of their constituents appear to hope that people don’t realize that ‘Minority Report’ is a work of fiction and pre-crime units are not possible. Police were able to investigate crimes successfully before the internet, telephones, and even do so in cases where people don’t use transmitted or recorded methods of communication; I’m sure that people even figured out who a murderer was before the invention of writing.
As we become ever more connected, it is a fantastic idea that there could be an officer that does an entire investigation from behind a desk and have a recorded confession by the perpetrator’s own hand before another officer is even sent out to actually arrest the criminal, but it is just that , a fantasy. When security is weakened it also makes it more difficult for our police to be confident that the person typing out all of those plans over an encrypted IM service such as WhatsApp is actually the person whom the account claims to be. When a backdoor is created, even for a good purpose, there are those with the skills and are determined enough to use it for nefarious purposes, authorized or not, and they won’t be responsibly disclosing vulnerabilities… Then again, neither would the government agency in this case; meaning that no one is safe or secure.
Lets make one thing perfectly clear, this “growing threat” being spoken of is a fallacy. Since the invention of modern firearms and specifically automatic weapons, the ability for a person or even a terrorist group to do harm outside of a war zone has not increased. When we are shown images to support these arguments, they usually display fighting in the Middle-East (as is often used to demonstrate a “threat” to the West), besides not being local to politicians making these claims, they tend to show things like RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) being fired at vehicles, because of their spectacular visuals, it’s good PR but these are not new and are not even a weapon of choice for those that these elected officials are claiming this ridiculous erosion of security is a response to.
As has been repeatedly demonstrated these bad guys prefer small arms to tanks, and home made explosive devices to C4. Take Timothy McVeigh, he used a van and farm supplies, and the oft referred to by American political fear-merchants the hijackers back on Sept 11, 2001, they used box-cutters rather than firearms. Given that the methods for operation that have been uncovered in anti-terror operations, there are generally lone operators with personal agendas (mostly out of feelings that they have lost control or are being persecuted), lone operators that are carrying out an act on behalf of a group (mostly suicide bombing), or cells of organized operatives that are given their directions and sent to carry out that act, generally with little or no communication or assistance after departure. None of these would be prevented by breaking encryption as we know it and destroying a free society’s way of life.
When politicians declare that a government’s first responsibility is to keep it’s people safe and that they cannot do that without being able to intercept all communication and read it at will, they are at the very least guilty of ignorance, whether it be innate or willful it makes little difference. I would argue that the first responsibility of a government is to carry out the will of the people, not to mention that safeguarding the rights of citizens should be paramount and not tossing them aside for the convenience of those in top “public service” offices, or to maintain their high-paying careers.
What needs to be done to combat the threat of physical violence against citizens of the world is a physical presence. Properly fund police departments, focus on human intelligence, and educate the populace with facts, not fear. It has been demonstrated time and time again that being able to dig through emails does not reliably stop violence, or terrorist acts. Just as forcing a nation of air travelers to remove their shoes has yet to find another shoe-bomber, it’s just a pantomime that equates inconvenience with security.
When something scary happens the natural reaction is to try and find ways to prevent it from happening again, a noble sentiment, but rather than addressing the root of the issue, we strip off our shoes, or in this case our privacy, civil rights, and the way of life that our elected officials are telling us that they are here to protect by telling us if we don’t the boogeyman of the week will get us, all in the name of convenience, cost-cutting and control of the populace.
The greatest enemy of fear, evil and tyranny is knowledge. Not being able share knowledge freely, for fear that it may not align with the sensibilities of the intelligence analyst reading your email is not freedom, and as a result, if you must put it in terms of winning, this would be a loss; a loss of personal rights, freedoms, and feeling safe from persecution. How can you feel secure when you’re always being watched, and the only safe place left is in your on mind. George Orwell would be both proud and saddened I’m sure.
I suppose we’ll just have to wait until its a UK or US leader (and not a German one) before they realize it’s not a good idea to do away with privacy all together.