nothing to hide, nothing to fear

I recently came across this rather nice (spoof) NSA site describing the work of the Agency’s “Domestic Surveillance Directorate”. That Directorate supposedly exists to protect the citizen from the usual suspects (terrorists, paedophiles, criminals) and is tasked with data collection and analysis to support that end.

The site says:

“Our value is founded on a unique and deep understanding of risks, vulnerabilities, mitigations, and threats. Domestic Surveillance plays a vital role in our national security by using advanced data mining systems to “connect the dots” to identify suspicious patterns.”


“In the past, domestic law enforcement agencies collected data AFTER a suspect had been identified. This often resulted in lost intelligence and missed opportunities. But what if data could be collected in advance, BEFORE the target was known? What if the mere act of collecting data could result in the identification of new targets?

What if we could build a national data warehouse containing information about every person in the United States? Thanks to secret interpretations of the PATRIOT ACT, top-secret Fourth Amendment exceptions allowed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and broad cooperation at the local, state, and federal level, we can!”

It continues its explanation of how and why data collection on citizens’ activity is so important:

“Every day, people leave a digital trail of electronic breadcrumbs as they go about their daily routine. They go to work using electronic fare cards; drive through intersections with traffic cameras; walk down the street past security cameras; surf the internet; pay for purchases with credit/debit cards; text or call their friends; and on and on.

There is no way to predict in advance which crucial piece of data will be the key to revealing a potential plot. The standard operating procedure for the Domestic Surveillance Directorate is to “collect all available information from all available sources all the time, every time, always”.

So, in shades of Philip K Dick’s “precogs” which allow the Police Precrime Division to arrest suspects /before/ they can commit any actual crime, just because the information is there we should collect it, analyse it, and look for potential activities which might, just might, allow us to prevent that criminal action.

Who could possibly object to that?

Only the the criminals. After all, no-one else has anything to hide.

Back in 2014, at about the time of the Snowden revelations, Simon Jenkins wrote a nice piece for the Guardian about an (again spoof) intended extension to the 2014 (emergency) Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (Drip). In that article, Jenkins had the Home Secretary say:

“A serious shortcoming has now emerged in the 2014 act. Many terrorists, criminals and paedophiles are no longer using the internet, and we need to follow them more closely. While their activities in the open are subject to surveillance cameras, they are also meeting in private houses and other premises. We thus need visual capability for complete coverage. The proposed bill supplies a vital link in the chain.”

In order to address that shortcoming the Home Secretary proposed:

“In consultation with colleagues I intend to amend building regulations to ensure that all new and converted properties have fish-eye lenses installed in ceiling cavities, with Wi-Fi cameras and appropriate power supply. A discreet camera in every room would be unnoticed and, in my view, unobjectionable.

Existing properties will be required to install them over a four-year period. These would supply real-time images of terrorists, criminals and paedophiles at any time of day and night. Any disconnection of a camera would immediately alert the police as prima facie evidence of wrongdoing. I have held talks with the industry on whether the cameras should be in bathrooms and bedrooms. It would clearly be nonsensical to exclude them, as terrorists and paedophiles often make use of these rooms.”

So, HMG would mandate spy cameras in all rooms of every private home in order to intercept data which might, just might, be of use in crime prevention.

Of course, whilst these references may be ironic and (supposedly) completely unrealistic, in fact they are not. Governments (most specifically including our own in the UK) continue to press for increased surveillance powers, the crippling or evasion of encryption, and longer retention of personal data.

Snowden himself said in his 2014 interview with Alan Rusbridger and Ewen MacAskill.

“Of course we can imagine hypotheticals in which some sort of mass surveillance system, facial recognition system, would be effective in preventing crime. In the same way we can imagine hypotheticals in which, if we allowed police to enter our homes freely and search them when we’re gone at work, we’d be able to discover elements of crime and drug use and any kind of social ill. But we draw the line, and we have to draw that line somewhere. The question is, why are our private details that are transmitted online, why are our private details that are stored on our personal devices, any different [from] the details and private records of our lives that are stored in our private journals?

There shouldn’t be this distinction between digital information and printed information. But governments, in the United States and many other countries around the world, increasingly seek to make that distinction because they recognise that it actively increases their powers of investigation.”

No there should not be such a distinction. And just because the data is there, does not mean it should be collected, stored and analysed on the off chance that it might be useful to a surveillance agency. HMG and other Governments may not like end-to-end encryption (because it hampers their collection capability), but that encryption protects the citizen in his or her daily interaction with the modern world. There is no way to break encryption without making everyone less safe. And any rhetoric to the contrary is simply a lie.

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