Legislating For Unicorns

When Julian Huppert MP (Lib-Dem) asked the Home Secretary Theresa May MP (Con) if banning encryption – as the Prime Minister had been interpreted as saying – is “genuinely what the Home Secretary wants to do?”, she evaded him with her answer.

I remain convinced her and the Cabinet’s position on encryption is based on a non-technical misinterpretation of detailed advice from within the Home Office. Her response, and other responses by her colleagues and by the US government, imply that the security officialdom of the US & UK believes it can resurrect “golden key” encryption where government agencies have a privileged back door into encryption schemes. That’s what’s encoded in her replies as “there should be no safe spaces for terrorists to communicate.” Think “Clipper chip“. As Ryan Paul comments,

More telling though is the insecurity the Conservative Party exhibits on the subject. Unwilling to discuss the matter in a balanced way, party mouthpiece Julian Smith MP descends to ad hominem against deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg MP (LD), in the process also exhibiting the hypocrisy of the unconvinced apologist. Sadly Mrs May rewards rather than rejects his question.

In a sequence of questions and answers in the same debate – which cannot conceivably have been unplanned – Conservatives ask party-political questions of the Home Secretary, to which she responds with unashamed electioneering. When this tactic is used – accusing an opponent of a fault you exhibit yourself far more than they do – it is always an attempt to conceal your own lack of validity.

Clegg’s crime was to assert that freedom and security are not inherently incompatible:

“I want to keep us safe. It’s ludicrous this idea that people who care about our freedom don’t care about our safety.

“What I will not do, because it is not proven, is say that every single man, woman and child should have data about what they get up to online kept for a year.”

For Conservative MPs to call that “disgraceful” is extremely revealing, both of their lack of comprehension of the issues and the cynicism with which they intend to manipulate the misapprehensions of Middle England for electoral gain. I’ve met no-one who seriously asserts the security services should be unable to secure warranted access to specific communications of those suspected of a crime. That capability is obviously justifiable in a democracy.

But the Communications Data Bill and proposals for “golden keys” go much further than is reasonable and balanced. What defenders of freedom seek is not insecurity; we instead seek transparency, accountability and proportionality, all in a form open to any citizen to scrutinise and challenge.

When Mrs May (and Labour’s Jack Straw MP, and others) refuse that democratic oversight and accuse its proponents of partisanship and irresponsible disregard of security, their own ad hominems and party partisanship reinforce the case rather than diminish it. It’s time for an adult debate informed by technological realities, instead of this opportunism and electioneering.

How To Safeguard Surveillance Laws

This letter was published in the London Evening Standard on January 12th, 2015:

I watch with alarm as, in the wake of the barbaric murders in France, politicians seek increased surveillance powers for the security services.

Surveillance is not always wrong; far from it, our democracy has long allowed accountable public servants to temporarily intrude on individuals they believe to be a threat.

My alarm arises for two reasons:

  • The powers requested in recent attempts at new law are open-ended and ill-defined. They lack meaningful oversight, transparency or accountability. They appear designed to permit the security services free rein in making their own rules and retrospectively justifying their actions.
  • The breadth of data gathered – far beyond the pursuit of individuals – creates a risk of future abuse, by both (inevitable) bad actors and people responding to future moral panic. Today’s justifications – where offered – make no accommodation for these risks.

Voters should listen respectfully but critically to the security services’ requests. Our representatives must ensure that each abridgement of our liberties is ring-fenced:

  • justified objectively using public data,
  • governed with impartial oversight, and
  • guarded by a sunset clause for both the powers and all their data by-products.

If the defence of free speech fatally abrades other liberties we are all diminished.

Yours faithfully

Simon Phipps

Any Revolution Can Be Repurposed

In fact this memorial to one — involving three days of killing in Paris over free speech for the press and a death sentence for blasphemy — has been:

Liberty and Vigilance
The July Column in the Place de la Bastille in Paris – itself dedicated to the celebration of liberty after the French Revolution – was erected in memory of the fallen of the later July Revolution of 1830. It’s not too far from the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

The July Revolution comprised three days of fighting in Paris, primarily on free speech grounds against state censorship. Charles X, France’s last hereditary monarch, had imposed the death penalty for blasphemy against Christianity. He also suspended the liberty of the press and dissolved the newly elected Chamber of Deputies.

Today, the column is used as a platform for surveillance cameras. We must be on our guard against similar repurposing today.

Careless Stereotyping

Ramadan LanternsI’ve been privileged to travel widely, and have had conversations with educated people in several countries where Islam is the norm. On one visit to the Levant, one of my acquaintances made statements starting “Christians should…”. I was taken aback. After all, what characteristic do all Christians have in common?

When you eliminate all the doctrines that are contested, balance for those who support right- and left-wing politics, allow for two millennia of schisms and state co-option and factor the micro-fragmentation of the protestant portion of Christendom, the only thing left in common is the syllable “Christ”. I realised the term was being used as shorthand for a stereotype, embracing everyone far away in the western world, summarising a set of sketchy facts mixed with biases and misunderstandings.

So when we in the west who are not adherents to Islam speak of “Muslims”, who are we talking about? We are doing the same thing my acquaintance in the Levant did; taking countless unfamiliar people who we consider “different” and tagging them with a word that doesn’t mean much to us but does allow the application of a stereotype.

More than that, it’s a bad stereotype. Just like calling everyone in the western world “Christian”, I have a problem with the attribution of any motive or collective responsibility to the 1.6 billion people who actually are Muslims, or of a unified strategy by the 49 countries where they are the majority, let alone to the others caught up in the stereotype’s dragnet (many of whom are in fact Christians, as well as other religions).

To say “Muslims should…” is to immediately use an impossible generalisation, to invoke a stereotype, to validate the rhetoric of discrimination and to indicate unfamiliarity with people who might fall into the classification (as well as to covertly engage in ignorant proselytism as some of the conversations I’ve followed this weekend illustrated).

How can discussion of a statement that starts something like “Muslims should…” by people who are not Muslims do anything other than harm? Given the number of people, of countries, who are tarred with that brush, certainly nothing actionable could arise from it. That’s why, when I hear people ascribing actions or motivations to “Muslims”, I now respond: “which Muslims, where, and how do you know?”

Responding to terrorism

charlie

I am appalled and horrified by the wicked and murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Settling scores with violence is the recourse of ignorant, cowardly barbarians – lower than animals. I am heartbroken for every person affected.

This was without doubt intended as an act of terrorism. But I refuse to be terrorised and decline the opportunity to hate. What does that mean practically? Terrorism is like a pernicious auto-immune disease to which it is easy to succumb. It seeks to provoke us into destroying ourselves.

  • To respond with attempts to make society less open is to succumb.
  • To respond with advocacy for or against religion is to succumb.
  • To respond with hatred of anything except terrorism is to succumb.
  • To respond by advocating racism and disrespect for anyone is to succumb.
  • To blame the victims is to succumb.

We should respond to this act of hate, which is as indefensible to anyone who embraces one of the world’s religions as to those who reject them all, by ensuring we do not succumb to the self-destructive reactions perpetrators of terrorism want to provoke. The best response is to strengthen the open, fair and tolerant society that terrorism seeks to destroy.

[This formed the seed for my column in InfoWorld]

DLC 1: Hotel arrogance, the no-win laptop and more

Originally posted on Meshed Insights & Knowledge:

Digital Life Clippings from week 1

  1. Marriott will ban shareable WiFi if the FCC don’t let them block itNYT – Their arrogance in attempting to protect their high-margin abuse of customers’ vulnerability knows no bounds; threatening the FCC is jaw-dropping.
    To carry out their threat to ban shareable WiFi, they would need to ban not only MiFis but also Windows, Mac and Linux laptops as well as almost all smartphones. They may think they have a right to break my internet if I won’t use their broken internet, but the “hospitality” they will need to show their “guests” will be deeply harmful.
    The bug is not that people want to use their own internet connections; it’s that Marriott think people should have to pay extra for a facility that’s become as fundamental to travellers as hot water or electric light. [Coverage]
  2. HP’s low-cost Windows laptop is…

View original 275 more words

A Europe Of Treaties?

I am no fan of elitist bureaucracy, but I am not a euro-sceptic. I am convinced the European Parliament and the civil service around it is close to the best available compromise for this part of history.

Without getting too starry-eyed about it all, I would especially prefer the European Parliament to continue to exist. Without it, european economic strategy would be negotiated between civil servants supporting national cabinets in treaty-making, using opaque and unaccountable processes. The Parliament gives us a real opportunity for scrutiny – and a democratic veto through our elected representatives – on each European policy issue, which change-by-treaty would not give us.

If we want a Europe where treaties like ACTA and TPP are the democratic norm, scrap the European parliament. If we want all the change that happens to be done in whatever the post-tobacco equivalent of smoke-filled rooms is, scrap the European Parliament. And, for the benefit of the raving right in the UK, if you want the UK’s primary trading market to be controlled invisibly via undocumented and unaccountable negotiations between the political lackeys of plutocrats, vote for the UK to “leave” the EU.

This is not to say it’s got everything right, but scrapping it or withdrawing from it passes control back to unaccountable treaty-negotiating mandarins and the corporate lobbyists who direct them. Britain can’t leave Europe. But it can choose to longer have a say in how it works.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,198 other followers

%d bloggers like this: