Thursday, 14 June 2012

Total war on crime means total war on privacy

The Home Office, having administered Theresa May what looks like a fatal dose of Kool-Aid (would even David Davis have been able to resist the securocrats for ever?), are powering ahead with plans to monitor and store details of every email, every Skype call, every contact on Facebook or Twitter, made by everyone in the country. It'll cost almost two billion pounds (surely an underestimate; look what happened to the Olympics budget), but hey, you're paying for it through your taxes, or through your broadband bills, or probably both, so who cares?

Announcing it on the same day that David Cameron is having an amicable chat with Lord Leveson might strikes some as a way of trying to bury the story, except that the Home Office put up their tame secretary of state to make the case on this morning's radio. And in the press Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe is busily plugging the case, absurdly claiming that for the police to have these powers is "a matter of life and death." Didn't his predecessor Ian Blair say exactly the same about the Blair government's proposals for 90 days pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects? That, too, was vital to protect the public. Until it never happened. Even the Met aren't demanding that any more, at least not loudly.

They really want, of course, to make your flesh creep. It's all about stopping terrorists, paedophiles, big organised criminal gangs, they say: it's not about monitoring the whole population at al. It's just that the whole population needs to be monitored in order that the terrorists, the paedophiles and the big organised crime gangs know that they can't avoid detection just by being on the internet. They have to be sneaky.

Not that they aren't sneaky already, of course: using proxy servers, setting up fake accounts, using false identities and all the rest of it comes naturally to the terrorist/paedophile/organised criminal mind. And the police already have dedicated teams of expert anti-sneaks who seem to have been able successfully to hunt down many such malefactors, despite the absence of these supposedly vital new powers, even though the "new methods of communication" that the Home Office and police are so concerned about have already been around for years. Oh look, here's a story about "dozens" of suspected paedophiles arrested in a big swoop, with "some 80 children removed from harm". How on earth did they manage that without these shiny new powers?

So it can't be about that.

How surpising is it that a Coalition government, both of whose constituent parties stood for election promising to roll back the surveillance state, is now enthusiastically endorsing those very policies? Not surprising at all! As Henry Porter prophesied in 2009:

We should not be lulled into seeing this as change in the government's goal of knowing everything about every one of us. The civil servants behind the scheme have a very long horizon indeed – an agenda that is designed to survive cuts in public spending and any change of government. They will argue the urgent necessity of the case with force and plausibility to inexperienced Conservative ministers, as they have done to the co-operative second raters in the present government.

That's a real cut-out and keep quote.

What was the Intercept Modernisation Programme has now been renamed the Communications Capabilities Development Programme, which sounds so, well, technical and harmless. And the draft bill published today does offer a few sops to campaigners in terms of access and authorisation - though the main benefit of that may just be to avoid embarrassing headlines about local councils snooping on parents taking their children to school. Credit is due to the principled Tories and Lib Dems who have wrung these concessions from the Home Office. Special honours to Dominic Raab(C) and Julian Huppert (LD). The basic philosophical problem remains, however.

Storing data about everyone just in case the police might take an interest in someone at a later date reflects a fundamental paradigm shift in the way in which authorities think about threat. A clue lies in Hogan-Howe's choice of words. Today he promised "total war on crime". Recently, the Met has changed its motto from the touchy-feely "working together for a safer London" to the scary-sounding "total policing". Just as in a total war there are no civilians, so under "total policing" there are no non-suspects. The net must trap everyone to stop anyone from getting away. Every member of society, after all, may be a paedophile or a terrorist, or at least one of the more mundane criminals who were the targets of most of the half-a-million applications made every year under Labour's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, most of which would have been unaffected by the new bill.

The purpose is supposed to be the protection of the public. But given the costs involved, costs borne by the public, it must be asked if the cost is worth it for the unquantified benefit of catching some criminals with greater ease. The Home Office seems unfazed by the technical challenges involved in monitoring every web communication to determine the identity of people being contacted without accessing the content of the message. After all, it's the public, who are so in need of protection, who will be paying for it. As for who benefits, you don't need to look too far.

As Stephen Graham noted back in March, assessing the securityfest that is the London Olympics, "amid a global economic crash, so-called homeland security industries – a loose confederation of defence, IT and biotechnology industries – are in bonanza mode." As governments in the developed world lose sight of traditional ideas of proportionality and acceptable risk in favour of "total security", there are fortunes to be made. Creating and maintaining fear of terrorists and paedophiles (curious how often the two are linked) is immensely to the benefit of security contractors and (in this case) IT consultants ever-ready to offer custom-built and strikingly expensive solutions.

Never mind the potential for abuse, the inevitable intrusion into the lives of innocent people whose computer use produces a false-positive, the likelihood of surveillance powers being used to keep tabs on political activists. Never mind that criminals will find other methods of communicating to get round the new surveillance. Never mind the chilling effect of knowing that everything you type might be read by a police officer. Just think of it as a fashionable way of boosting the economy.