Sunday, 17 June 2012

How to wreck progress

Over the past 400 (ish) years one of the biggest drivers of prosperity and social well being has been the ability to communicate freely. Starting with the letter post and more recently moving through the telephone era, then via fax into the internet, SMS and email age.  It has allowed economic growth by encouraging people to move to jobs and keep in touch with their families and has built our modern flexible society. The Internet has allowed trade, social innovation and ideas to travel the world with an unprecedented  pace.

It’s useful to remember that the postal system originated because Charles 1st wanted his enemies and conspirators to send letters, he encouraged them to do so but made his royal post a monopoly in 1635 so that all letters went via his offices where his officers could (and they did) open any interesting letters to ascertain the contents and keep the king informed of any plots and foreign activity in the country. Everything changes and also stays the same.

The government’s latest scheme, to make Internet network companies keep all Internet and phone message information, an announcement that was carefully slid out quietly behind a news screen of Greece, Levenson and Euro 2012 to appease forthcoming EU regulations, is intensely dangerous. You notice all the ‘reassurances’ that nothing to hide means nothing to fear. Notice also all the assurances that the authorities will only have access to the when and where of communications not to the content, but then in the small print the ‘only by court order’, so the intent is obviously to record and store all content as well. How long one wonders before they move to prohibit encryption and VPNs which would negate their system.

The danger to civil liberties and freedoms is quite obvious and is becoming discussed, but what about the danger to innovation and business? Most companies have private computer systems but what happens when an employee goes out the door? Anyone travelling to do business abroad nowadays relies on email and mobile phone. Anyone homeworking uses email and public Internet systems. Outsourcing relies on public email systems for communications between partners. How will any company or business ensure company privacy and confidentiality?

If all their communication is being recorded on a database that database will become a magnet, not just for authoritarian trolling by security services, tax collectors, police, customs and all forms of authority but it will become a magnet too for industrial espionage and for commercial dirty tricks. No remote communications will have any assurance of privacy. All this stuff about modernising health records, communicating with your doctor by email, is it legitimate to have that in a database? What about future developments? Nothing electronic will ever be secure again. How will that impact future uses and probable benefits of the Internet?

Just for comparison purposes I quote this from a BBC news item .

Reporters Without Borders said it was worried the latest effort to block access to Tor might be the first step towards creating a system that would allow the authorities to intercept any email, social network post or VoIP call made in the country.”

Which authorities you may wonder are they reporting on who want to intercept everything? They are talking about Ethiopia – that’s how far our government has sunk.

It may be that in the trivial personal sense people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear, but that does not mean that keeping something hidden cannot sometimes be a good, even an essential, requirement. Hidden does not always equate to bad.

Just in case you wondered about going back to snail mail, which has been mostly private since Charles’ time you can forget that too, the new bill includes the right to record paper mail sent and received and open it.


  1. I hadn’t thought of the business angle. Maybe secure courier will be with us for the foreseeable future?

    While these trends are a cause for concern, I also wonder how much is technically feasible given the sheer volume of data. I don’t know the answer, but it must be a formidable problem.

    Even so, I’m sure censorship and snooping will grow. Maybe the freedom we have now will one day be a thing of the past.