Archive for the 'Politics' Category

In a national surveillance state, privacy is seen as “a luxury of the guilty”

[link] Friday, September 19th, 2014

Terrific piece by Andrew O’Hagan on Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in the London Review of Books.

Sample:

Surveillance in the UK is an implicitly sanctioned habit that has smashed the moral framework of journalism. Protection of sources is not an adornment, not some optional garment worn only when it suits, but a basic necessity in the running of a free press in a fair democracy. Snowden proved that, but not to the satisfaction of Britain’s home affairs establishment, or the police, who like to behave as if all freedoms are optional at the point of delivery. [Alan] Rusbridger recently made the point that source confidentiality is in peril, after the revelation that the Metropolitan Police had spied on the phone records of the political editor of the Sun, Tom Newton Dunn. Snowden might have taught us to expect to be monitored, but his message, that our freedom is being diluted by a manufactured fear of the evil that surveillance ‘protects’ us from, is not being heard. Louder and clearer to many is the message that comes from the security state mind, a suspicion carried on the air like a germ, that certain kinds of journalism, like certain aspects of citizenship, are basically treacherous and a threat to good management. This germ has infected society to such a degree that people don’t notice, they don’t mind, and a great many think it not only permissible but sensible and natural, in a culture of ‘threat’, to imagine that privacy is merely a luxury of the guilty.

And this:

The first thing that amazed me about Julian Assange was how fearful he was – and how right, as it turned out – about the internet being used as a tool to remove our personal freedom. That surprised me, because I’d naively assumed that all hackers and computer nerds were in love with the net. In fact, the smarter ones were suspicious of it and understood all along that it could easily be abused by governments and corporations. The new technology would offer the chance of mass communication and networking like never before, but lurking in all those servers and behind all those cameras was a sinister, surveilling machine of ever growing power. The US government sought omniscience – ‘a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide’ – and showed by such actions that it considers itself above the prospectus set out in its own constitution. The leaders of the NSA said, ‘collect it all,’ and the people put up with it.

So who still believes that collecting metadata is harmless?

[link] Friday, September 12th, 2014

Interesting snippet in the latest newsletter from the Open Rights Group:

It was revealed last week that the Met police accessed the telephone records of The Sun’s Political Editor, Tom Newton Dunn, using a RIPA request.

The case should end any discussion about whether or not metadata reveals anything personal about us: Newton Dunn’s calls and when and where they were received, were seen as enough to identify a whistleblower, who contacted him over the Plebgate scandal.

Journalistic privilege, protected by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, was circumvented by the use of RIPA. Newton Dunn was not even aware that his records had been accessed until the Met published their report into the Plebgate affair.

When DRIP was announced, Newton Dunn wrote in The Sun, that the new powers would give MI5 and cops, “crucial access to plotters’ mobile phone records”. UK public authorities use RIPA over 500,000 a year to access private data. The police refused to answer questions as to how many times they have have accessed journalists’ data. When this is happening without our knowledge, we cannot ignore the threat to our civil liberties that data retention poses.

The interesting bit is the fact that the metadata were sufficient to identify a whistleblower. We all knew that, of course, but the official line is still that bulk collection of metadata does not infringe on privacy.

Obama’s speech on ISIS, translated

[link] Friday, September 12th, 2014

Lovely piece by David Frum in The Atlantic.

We don’t really have a plan. We don’t have a definition of success. We see some evildoers and we’re going to whack them. They deserve it, don’t they?

And sure, ISIS does deserve it. The group is a nasty collection of slavers, rapists, thieves, throat-slitters, and all-around psychopaths. The trouble is: so are the people fighting ISIS, the regimes in Tehran and Damascus that will reap the benefits of the war the president just announced. They may be less irrational and unpredictable than ISIS. But if anything, America’s new unspoken allies in the anti-ISIS war actually represent a greater “challenge to international order” and a more significant “threat to America’s core interests” than the vicious characters the United States will soon drop bombs on.

The question before the nation is, “What is the benefit of this war to America and to Americans?”

Which is a purely rhetorical question, left unanswered.

Sometimes, events deserve the adjective ‘historic’

[link] Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Harold Wilson famously observed that ‘a week is a long time in politics”. Well, we now have a week to go before the Scottish Referendum, and my hunch is that it will be the longest week in recent history. The Westminster political establishment has finally woken up to the thought that the Scots might actually do it! and blind panic would be a polite euphemism for their belated reaction to that terrible thought. Today the three party leaders are on their (separate) ways to Scotland to plead with the inhabitants not to break up the United Kingdom. Cameron has a pathetic appeal to the Scots in today’s Daily Mail, which makes me wonder what planet he inhabits. The idea that Scottish voters would be moved by anything in the Daily Mail is bizarre. The SDP leadership must be wondering if they are dreaming, because every intervention by Cameron in the debate has the immediate effect of boosting the ‘Yes’ vote.

What’s bugging the Westminster elite, of course, is the realisation that if the Scots actually do vote to opt out of the ‘United’ Kingdom, then the consequences for the rump that remains are profound. In particular, the post-imperial hubris that has enabled Westminster to pretend that Britain was still a world power, with a ‘seat at the top table”, will finally be exploded. Without Scotland, for example, UK-lite will struggle to maintain its fleet of nuclear submarines (once seen as the guarantor of that top-table seat). And the puncturing of post-imperial delusions will, no doubt, be a good thing.

But other consequences of Scottish independence will be less palatable. Cameron will be ousted as the Tory leader who conceded the vote that led to the break-up of the UK. He will most likely be replaced by Boris Johnson in a Tory party in which the so-called Euro-sceptics (i.e. Euro-phobes) hold the upper hand. Scottish secession also means that the Labour party (which has always had a lot of Scottish seats at Westminster) will never again be able to form a majority government. A Johnson-led Tory party will have an inbuilt majority in England and Wales, and will move to take the UK out of the EU. Which means that the ‘soft’ border between Northern Ireland (still part of UK-lite) and the Irish Republic will once again become a hard border — with frontier controls and all the other paraphernalia deemed necessary to keep foreigners out.

And then there’s the transition problem. If the Scots vote Yes, then Scotland will become a foreign country on March 16, 2016. But the next UK general election is in May 2015 — which means that for 10 months Scottish MPs will sit in Westminster, the government of which will be negotiating the details of the divorce with the Scottish government.

And so on. You can see why the folks in Westminster are now changing their underpants twice a day (as they say in Australia).

Which is why the Referendum really does deserve the adjective “historic”.

Why Facebook is for ice buckets and Twitter is for what’s actually going on

[link] Saturday, September 6th, 2014

Tomorrow’s Observer column

Ferguson is a predominantly black town, but its police force is predominantly white. Shortly after the killing, bystanders were recording eyewitness interviews and protests on smartphones and linking to the resulting footage from their Twitter accounts. News of the killing spread like wildfire across the US, leading to days of street confrontations between protesters and police and the imposition of something very like martial law. The US attorney general eventually turned up and the FBI opened a civil rights investigation. For days, if you were a Twitter user, Ferguson dominated your tweetstream, to the point where one of my acquaintances, returning from a holiday off the grid, initially inferred from the trending hashtag “#ferguson” that Sir Alex had died.

There’s no doubt that Twitter played a key role in elevating a local killing into national and international news. (Even Putin’s staff had some fun with it, offering to send human rights observers.) More than 3.6m Ferguson-related tweets were sent between 9 August, the day Brown was killed, and 17 August.

Three cheers for social media, then?

Not quite. ..

Read on

Ireland is disappearing its young people

[link] Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Remarkable Irish Times column by Fintan O’Toole.

Very quickly but rather quietly, Ireland is doing a remarkable thing. It is disappearing its young people. In April 2009, the State contained 1.423 million people aged between 15 and 35. In April 2014, there were 1.206 million in the same age group. That’s a reduction from one generation of more than the entire population of Limerick city and county. This is the age group of rebellion, of adventure, of trying it out and trying it on. It’s the generation that annoys its elders and outrages convention and challenges accepted wisdom. It is demography’s answer to the stultification of groupthink. It is not always right but without its capacity to drive everyone else up the wall, smugness settles over everything like a fine grey dust.

The biggest reason for this loss of nearly a quarter of a million young people in five years is emigration. People of my age remember the 1980s, the Donnelly visas and the flight of the Ryanair generation, and assume that what’s happening now couldn’t be as bad. They’re right – it’s not as bad, it’s much worse.

In the entire, miserable decade of the 1980s, net emigration was 206,000, a figure seen at the time as a shocking indictment of political and economic failure. In the last five years alone it is 151,000. And most of this emigration is of people between 15 and 44: in 2012 and 2013 alone, we lost 70,000 people in this age group. The percentage of 15- to 29-year-olds in the population has fallen from 23.1 per cent in 2009 to 18 per cent in 2014. And it’s not just that the young generation is physically shrinking. Many, even those who have stayed, have emigration in their heads as an active option. They are, mentally, half here.

Why are they going? Largely because they’re browned off. It’s been clear for quite some time now that most of those who are leaving are not, in a simple sense, economic refugees…

He’s right. Many of those who have gone had jobs in Ireland.

Dave Eggers has seen the future. Well, a possible future anyway…

[link] Monday, September 1st, 2014

Yesterday’s Observer column.

Fifteen months have passed since Edward Snowden began to explain to us how our networked world works. During that time there has been much outrage, shock, horror, etc expressed by the media and the tech industry. So far, so predictable. What is much more puzzling is how relatively relaxed the general public appears to be about all this. In Britain, for example, opinion polling suggests that nearly two thirds of the population think that the kind of surveillance revealed by Snowden is basically OK.

To some extent, the level of public complacency/concern is culturally determined. Citizens of Germany, for example…

Read on

Thinking about the End

[link] Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Great talk by Martin Rees.

TOR, Taylor Swift and breaking the Kafkaesque spiral

[link] Friday, August 22nd, 2014

target

Photo cc https://secure.flickr.com/photos/comedynose/7865159650

Ever since the Snowden revelations began I’ve been arguing that Kafka is as good a guide to our surveillance crisis as is Orwell. The reason: one of the triggers that prompts the spooks to take an interest in someone is if that person is using serious tools to protect their privacy. It’s like painting a target on your back.

So if you use PGP to encrypt your email, or TOR for anonymous browsing, then you are likely to be seen as someone who warrants more detailed surveillance. After all, if you’ve nothing to hide… etc.

And there’s no way you would know that you had been selected for special treatment. This sounds like a situation that Kafka would recognise.

Until the other day, I couldn’t think of a way out of this vicious cycle. And then I came on reports (e.g. here) that a musician of whom I’d never heard — electronic music artist Aphex Twin — had announced the details of his new album on a site only accessible through Tor.

This resulted in the page attracting 133,000 views in little over 24 hours. This is within the limits of what TOR can currently handle, but Tor’s executive director, Andrew Lewman, worries that a more mainstream artist could break the system in its current state.

“If tomorrow, Taylor Swift said ‘to all my hundreds of millions of fans, go to this [Tor] address’, it would not work well. We’re into the millions now, and we have a few companies saying ‘we want to put Tor as a privacy mode in our premier products, can you handle the scale of 75-100m devices of users’, and right now the answer is no, we can’t. Not daily.”

This sounds like — and is — a problem. But it’s also an opportunity. Because what we need is for encrypted email and anonymous browsing to become the norm so that the spooks can’t argue that only evil people would resort to using such tools.

And here’s where Aphix Twin and Taylor Swift come in. They have the power to kickstart the mainstreaming of TOR — to make it normal. Of course for that to be effective it means that TOR has to be boosted and expanded and securely funded. Just as the big Internet companies have finally realised that they have to chip in and support, for example, the OpenSSL project, so they should now chip in to help build the infrastructure that would enable TOR to become the default was we all did web browsing.

Illegal spying below

[link] Saturday, August 9th, 2014

Lovely! Good example of liberal chutzpah.