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Posted on the 20 January 2014 by Charlescrawford @charlescrawford

My latest piece at Telegraph Blogs - on state eavesdropping:

What safeguards might we want within this wide range of different activities so that the government does all these things reasonably but does not overstep the mark in using information technologies improperly against its own citizens? Something like this:

• Powerful government computers that quietly search the world's data-oceans looking for suspicious patterns, but with specific high-level authorisations needed to track actual individuals within our own country or overseas

• Other technical safeguards so set off alarm bells if operators appear to be using data-searches improperly • A tight legal and regulatory framework emphasising human rights and limits on state power

• People running the systems are told to operate to the highest standards of professional ethics – when in doubt they should protect the citizens’ privacy. Operators and supervisors alike are vetted to make sure that only people with unblemished records of professional and personal integrity are used

• All this takes place within a wider framework of regulatory supervision by trusted outsiders, including elected parliamentarians and independent judges • Regular audits and spot-checks to make sure that everything is being done properly

• Rigorous arrangements for sharing intelligence data with close allies, with built-in safeguards for UK citizens.

In short, something closely resembling the current British intelligence-gathering system.

Despite the wailing against this system by Snowden/Assange fans and others from Left and Right alike who rail against the supposedly oppressive status quo, no one has come up with anything seriously better. That’s because there probably isn’t anything seriously better that combines top-end confidentiality, honourable professional ethics, reasonable but searching external cross-checking, fair democratic and judicial supervision, and (last but not least) technical robustness aimed against hostile sabotage, inadvertent leaks or deliberate Snowden-type betrayal

I ended on an ambiguous, dark note:

Whether we like it or not (and often we do), we are getting ever more astonishingly accurate authentication links between people and machines. It soon will be technically impossible to stay "anonymous". Data we emit as people as we do anything other than sit alone starving in a cave will be collected and stored and processed as part of things working normally. That data will throw up patterns of behavior that can be used for both good and malign purposes, by both government agencies and private organisations.

These trends may lead to a creepy technical or even moral convergence between different government systems. Democracies and autocracies alike will rely on technology that allows the state to monitor citizens, but also citizens to monitor citizens, and citizens to monitor the state.

Perhaps citizens of the future will be baffled by the fact that anyone was surprised by Snowden’s revelations: watching everyone and everything and being watched all the time by everyone and everything is the source of our freedom and our security. Information Macht Frei.

What is really staggering about this sort of debate is that it is barely possible to define ways of describing what is happening that permits a sane discussion about it. We tend to think about information as a 'thing' that can be protected. But in fact it's a flow of digital data-packets that surge to and fro around the world's computer circuits and drive everything that makes human life on the planet now function. And the ways in which data can be created and monitored keep changing as computers get faster and cheaper. 

Look at another Telegraph Blogs piece that has just gone up, urging estate agents to use IT properly:

The blame lies with estate agents – an industry paid huge sums to sell houses, but who relentlessly forego any attempt at earning their pennies by actually understanding the customer. Given the data they hold it should be far and away a smoother, more streamlined service. They know the buyers’ budget; preferred areas; number of bedrooms needed; style of house; whether they want a garden; the preferred proximity to the station; Christ, they should know whether you want a catflap…

But all this is ignored in lieu of just a single point of differentiation: price.

In other words, hurrah for even more 'surveillance' of us and our preferences by private companies. The idea of 'mass customisation' (ie more and more products designed for specific consumers) is terrific in principle - less waste, better choice, more creativity. But it turns on more and more of our own preferences being fine-tuned and generally available.

This website makes some libertarian-lite pretensions. But there is no prospect of the state slimming down any time soon. So an important debate emerges: we have extensive democratic checks and balances over what the state does with all the data it gathers - what 'democratic' control do we have over what data private businesses gather? Yes, there is the core control that comes from being a customer or not, and ticking the box that says 'Your data may be shared' or not ticking it. But how real is that, when the very fact of going on that site is strewing data about ourselves and our current location far and wide? The whole idea of distinguishing private from public data seems to me to be evaporating in important respects.

Final thought. Many small island-states have done well as 'offshore' tax havens. That seems to be getting squeezed by the powerful economies bent on extracting more tax. What if these places become offshore data-protection zones instead, offering robust legal protection against data-snooping?

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