Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Big Sister Is Watching You - Or Is She?

Legislation is shortly to go before the UK Parliament allowing the intelligence agency GCHQ to monitor the phone and internet activity of everyone in the UK. They won’t be able to look at the content of calls, emails etc without a warrant, but they’ll be able to see who you’ve been in contact with. Similar legislation failed under Labour and was opposed by the Tories. Let's see what happens now it's the other way round.

The civil liberties groups are up in arms, but it seems like common sense to me. Through mobile phones and the internet, new worlds of communication have opened up and it is the government’s job to make sure they don’t become a secure haven for harmful activities such as terrorism, paedophile rings and organised crime.
It’s always been the government’s job to prevent criminal activity, and it would be failing in its most basic duty – to maintain an ordered, safe society – if it didn’t introduce such legislation.

You need to be able to look at certain activities in real time, and monitor extensive patterns of communication without having to go to a magistrate each time. Note the police won’t be able to do this, and even GCHQ won’t be able to look at content without a warrant.

It’s easy to react to this sort of legislation and feel invaded, but let’s imagine a real situation. You have Slimey the known paedophile. I would hope that GCHQ is already monitoring his electronic communications for signs of contact with other known paedophiles.
But supposing Slimey is suspected of being part of a paedophile ring with people who are not known to the police? What you need to do firstly is to monitor all his communications, and then those of all the people he is in contact with, and then all the people they are in contact with, and so on. It's immensely complex. And what do you find? 3 steps down the line Gropey, another known paedophile, turns up. Gropey and Slimey are not stupid enough to contact each other directly, but who are these intermediaries? And one particular email or text was recklessly sent from Sri Lanka, hotspot for paedophile sex tourism. Dodgy. And all this is without even opening any texts etc.

Now I know very little about most of my Facebook friends (let alone my friends’ friends). For all I know, one of them could be Gropey. It’s perfectly possible. He just happens to be interested in astrology, for example. GCHQ would then need to monitor my electronic communications and those of all my other Facebook friends, and then their friends in turn, at least for a while, to see if a pattern emerged. And it probably wouldn’t be some prurient bureaucrat fingering through my messages, but a computer algorithm trawling through millions of connections and looking for patterns.

If you lived in a village 100 years ago – as most people did – everyone would have known your business. If someone did something, people would have a fairly good idea who did it. Nowadays we have people we don’t know – or maybe just computers - knowing some of our business, instead of people we do know - and may not like - knowing all of our business. I think I prefer it like it is now.

The issue is not the creation of these powers for GCHQ. It has to happen. The issue is ensuring the powers do not get abused. Spying on people for political reasons. Or being paid to by journalists: the recent phone hacking enquiry has proved what we all knew, which is that the police can be bought. Presumably, so can some people working at GCHQ.

And if the government didn’t introduce these powers, we’d probably find we were being snooped on anyway, but in an unregulated manner. So for this reason as well, the legislation is needed.

Of course there will be abuses, in the same way that the police will always do bad things, like framing people when they are under pressure to get a result, or being prejudiced against the minorities that many of us are also secretly prejudiced against, or taking bribes. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a police force.

This issue is current in the US too. 2 days ago, in the New York Times, a headlined article began:

Law enforcement tracking of cellphones, once the province mainly of federal agents, has become a powerful and widely used surveillance tool for local police officials, with hundreds of departments, large and small, often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight, documents show.

And in yesterday's New York Times we read:

The director of the F.B.I. said cyberattacks would soon replace terrorism as the agency’s No. 1 concern as foreign hackers, particularly from China, penetrate American firms’ computers and steal huge amounts of valuable data and intellectual property... the executive assistant director of the F.B.I. told Congress last week of an American company that had all of its data from a 10-year, $1 billion research program copied by hackers in one night. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, head of the military’s Cyber Command, called the continuing, rampant cybertheft “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.”

Because it is fearful that government monitoring would be seen as a cover for illegal snooping and a violation of citizens’ privacy, the Obama administration has not even attempted to develop a proposal for spotting and stopping vast industrial espionage. It fears a negative reaction from privacy-rights and Internet-freedom advocates who do not want the government scanning Internet traffic.

Currently Pluto is stationing in Capricorn, just as the UK government has released these legislative plans. Government (Capricorn) control (Pluto) is an issue here, highlighted by Pluto’s being stationary. Whether you see the plans as the shadow side of Pluto in Capricorn – authoritarian, over-controlling government – or as a necessary exertion of power (Pluto) by the government (Capricorn) probably depends on your political position.

My opinion is that it is mainly the latter motive, though over time it will tend to shade into the former motive. But it would be wrong to try to use astrology to justify my opinion. Astrology doesn’t tell you what to think. It just indicates what principles, what archetypes, what gods are at work.

For the UK, Pluto is stationing at a very significant point, around 9.30 Capricorn: the UK IC is at 9.20 Capricorn and the UK Sun is at 10.11 Capricorn. What is happening with the GCHQ legislation is therefore very significant in terms of the government taking control. The astrology tells us that. What it doesn’t tell us is what value to place on it. We will each have our own opinion.

Something I object to is the reflex reaction against the legislative plans by the educated liberal consensus, that they are simply a bad thing, Big Brother, end of story. Like GM food is simply a bad thing to be opposed. Or nuclear power. Nothing is like that. It is unthinking. Being educated is unfortunately not the same thing as being able to think - being able to weigh up emotive subjects dispassionately and to question one’s own values and attitudes. I think these plans need intelligent opposition. There will be abuses, there will be too many of them at times, and governments have to be kept on their toes.

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Magic Dragon said...

I understand where you are coming from and your argument. Yet, I can not fully agree with it because somehow this legislation is based in the fact that we are all suspects of something before we even do or think about anything. Somehow that does not seem right.
Legislation and regulation of private communication may be needed, but it has to be based and developed under different assumptions and with very clear purposes leaving the privacy of citizens alone. We need to feel and be safe from government and their actions. Specially when you see the confidence that we can have in politicians of all sorts (and police actions). Somehow it brings a sense of uneasiness. Not right.

Dharmaruci said...

Isn't it the same when the police investigate a crime? They have to rule out everyone who was in any way connected. But that doesn't make one a suspect.

Of course like you I'd rather GCHQ didn't have access to my emails etc when they think they need to. And I'd rather there was an alternative. Can you think of one?

Sara said...

Well, we could go back to the 19th century and live like the Amish in a more self-sufficient and less techy way, but no one would like that, either.

Anonymous said...

My fear is that never before has this level of knowledge of ones social structure/communication network been available. Imagine if Hitler had this information! How easy to stamp out dissent or even poison a whole network of 'terrorists'/'freedom fighters'.

Juliette said...

Great post, but your last paragraph bashing what you call 'the educated liberal consensus' smacks of american right-wing rhetoric. Education does teach one how to think critically (at least a good liberal arts education); and while I am persuaded by your argument for the monitoring of phonecalls and internet use, you characterize liberals as a group of tree hugging oblivious reactionaries. (p.s. even the Economist recently ran articles about the failure and uncertain future of nuclear energy)

Dharmaruci said...

I'm not necessarily pro-nuclear power either. What I'm objecting to is the type of people (a minority) with whom you cannot discuss the issue because for them nuclear power is so obviously a bad thing and you must be some sort of reactionary if you think otherwise.

I think the internet thing attracts opposition from both political wings: from the far right, who want their freedom to do what they want; and from the left who are concerned about civil liberties. They've both got valid points.

John said...

I do understand where your coming from Dharmaruci but it doesn't feel right. I mean, how would someone feel if I had opened their postal mail.

Dharmaruci said...

It's not really about that. It's about electronic communications and who is in contact with who and when. And they don't without a warrant get to see the content of those communications.

But I'm sure if someone was a suspect in something serious, their postal mail gets opened already and probably has been for years. At least, I should hope so.

John said...

The government can abuse it and no one would know about it. Depends what you class as something serious and what they class it as. What about higher union representatives and those who hold office in other party's. As I say it would be open to abuse and once it's in then it's in. It's just a smokescreen to pry into ordinary people.I mean before long they will be banning astrology and maybe checking our emails.

Dharmaruci said...

You're sounding like a conspiracist!

Anonymous said...

Dharmarucci..... You really surprise me at times. That comment about the "educated liberal consensus" smacks of the right-wing lunacy that we are enduring here in the US. If I heard someone say this, I would consider it a 'trigger phrase' that they got from watching Fox News. Education is not a bad thing. But spying on people is. And the legislation you discuss is ripe for all sorts of abuse. Once you say it's OK, then they are going to run with it. They will use it all sorts of ways that you can't even imagine. The policies of the right-wing in the US want to impose some sort of don't think that astrology is untouchable. Beside birth control, they are starting to go after education in a big way. I would say in closing, that you may not be happy with the end result of what you wish for.....

Dharmaruci said...

What I'm criticizing is the emotive, unconsidered objection you often get to these types of proposals, just as you get with GM and nuclear power. What is needed is intelligent opposition. When people are 'educated' or intellectual they can think they're immune to this sort of mob prejudice, and they're not: it's just an educated, liberal mob mentality.

Anonymous said...

Who emails me or I email is nobody's business but mine! Period! What you have written here is nonsense!

Anonymous said...

Who emails me or I email is nobody's business but mine! Period! What you have written here is nonsense!

Twilight said...

I can see both sides of this, but what Dharmaruci said here is key, for me, as things are at present:

it probably wouldn’t be some prurient bureaucrat fingering through my messages, but a computer algorithm trawling through millions of connections and looking for patterns.

That doesn't bother me unduly, it doesn't bother me to have to carry photo identification of some kind either. Neither procedure impinges on my personal freedom - unless I try to do something the authorities consider "wrong". At present this could be stuff such as drug-running, paedophilia, terrorism, bomb-making, criminal doings in general - which all fit my own definition of "wrong".

Here's the rub. What is "wrong" now as defined by the Powers the Be, can change radically.

There are fears in the US that at some point it might become "wrong" to voice dissent against the establishment. E-mail links could link groups of dissenters pattern-wise. That's just one possible outcome. Theocracy isn't too far in the realms of fantasy here either - and imagine what dissent against the establishment in that context might mean!

For now, it's not horrendous - but could easily become so.

Anonymous said...

I am really annoyed as I wrote a really long comment only to loose it..

Essentially there are so many ways to circumvent this legislation (PAYG phones, public internet kiosks as examples), and for others to use your equipment to complete their nefarious aims (for which you will be blamed (such as bot computers)) that the proposed legislation is pathetic.

It is merely a cycnical attempt to enforce Copyright law, the rights of monopolies, and an attempt to monitor citizens in a style that will only ever result in a Mccarythistic witch hunt.

Anonymous said...

Objectivity about ones strongly held views is so difficult. I am astounded at my meanness when my "side" is threatened. Nasty, murderous thoughts.

Once I worked with police going to the scene of potential crimes. I learned not to challenge inaccurate police reports unless someone was actually accussed of a crime they didn't do. I didn't challenge illegal searches unless... I learned that informants are protected even though they did great harm. The line between the law and criminal became blurred.
It is just how it is. Yet, I will call them when I have need. I hope they can keep the planes in the air, the bombs out of the subways.

Anonymous said...

In the early 50s, everyone was on a 'party-line' and that's how gossip spread through the small towns. The operator also spread the news when someone died, or got pregnant.

Anonymous said...

I don't like loss of liberty and privacy but I'm pretty sure that these principals are lost already by hackers who are already doing this. The gvmt has to be able to deal with those types at their own level. These people don't fight with guns.

Thanks as usual for bringing up an interesting topic and for looking at the more difficult side of the argument.