In case you hadn’t noticed: the UK government wants to take away your privacy… and some other rights and liberties as well (The Internet is Serious Business #2)

Turkey’s top court this week (miraculously) overturned a law granting tightening internet control. But this is about the only good news about what any government has done this week. I commented last week on the German government’s more or less clandestine attempt at curbing parliamentary oversight.

 

German’s foreign intelligence agency spies… on Germans

This week, German digital rights platform Netzpolitik leaked a report on what members of the German foreign intelligence agency (BND) are not allowed to say in testimony before the NSA inquiry in the German Bundestag. Basically, they aren’t allowed to say anything, not even their names. Which makes parliamentary oversight extremely difficult. Add to that what I wrote about last week – the idea of making certain testimonies by the data security commissioner subject to government approval – and exactly how much oversight can you expect to have left? Very little. Which may, in fact, be in the German government’s and the BND’s best interest. Turns out the BND “has for years passed data on German citizens to the NSA”, despite claiming that “[a]ll data on Germans was… filtered out.” More than that, Germany gave the USA access to a major fibre optic node in Frankfurt, apparently in exchange for a spy base in Bad Eibling and spying tools like xKeyscore. The programme in question is codenamed “Eikonal” some of it is quite possibly illegal and in violation of Germany’s basic law. German MPs knew about the cooperation when it started – and some of them are still MPs today. No wonder the German government is fighting tooth and nail to keep Edward Snowden out of the country.

 

The UK: TPIMs, Banning Orders, Extremism Disruption Orders…er, huh?

Meanwhile in the UK, Home Secretary Teresa May this week had a fair few things to say about national security and about how she plans to address the threat of terrorism which, apparently, is now on all our doorsteps. Now, don’t be alarmed: I have just checked and there is no threat on my doorstep. I’m sure it’s not on many of yours either. And yet, Ms May’s speech is very alarming. Not so much because of the fear-mongering but because of what the Home Secretary herself has threatened, namely to once again push for the Communications Data Bill, dubbed the Snoopers Charter by its opponents.

What this legislative gem does is it requires

Internet Service Providers and mobile phone companies to maintain records (but not the content) of each user’s internet browsing, social media activity, emails, calls, internet gaming, and mobile messaging services

– metadata, basically, which we know by now can be far more revealing than content.

The bill was, in May’s words “torpedoed by the [dangerously irresponsible] Liberal Democrats” when introduced two years ago – her comments sparked a row with Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who demanded an apology.

That’s not all either. The Home Secretary also announced that she would seek to strengthen TPIMs (Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures) and introduce Banning Orders and Extremism Disruption orders.

Now TPIMs are a real beauty. While they place individuals under house arrest, curtail freedom of speech without a judge or jury, and – importantly – place individuals under surveillance of their communications data (including content) they are far from effective because none of the evidence so gathered is actually admissible in court – an outdated convention prevents this.

As to Banning Orders, these are intended to ban organisations based on a “reasonable belief” by ministers that the organisation intends

to incite religious or racial hatred, to threaten democracy or if there is a pressing need to protect the public from harm, either from a risk of violence, public disorder, harassment or other criminal acts.

Yes, these could be extremist organisations like ISIS – which is what the Tories are counting on we will automatically think of, I reckon. But they could also be organisations that actually do nothing more than engage in legitimate dissent.

More importantly, note that, “[t]he police would also be given new powers to apply to a court to impose extreme disruption orders on individuals, using the same criteria.”

Now, carefully read the fine print here because immediately this should beckon the following questions:

  • What constitutes “reasonable belief”?
  • Who defines what constitutes a “threat to democracy”?
  • What exactly constitutes “public disorder”?

Given what we have learned over the past 16 months, the mass spying conducted by the NSA, GCHQ, GCSB, BND et. al. could arguably also be called a threat to democracy (it is, after all, in violation of the US and German constitutions). Could government “organisations” engaging in such activity thus be banned under the new orders? Obviously not.

But what about people protesting against the war in Iraq? What about students protesting against tuition fees? If this sounds overblown to you, bear in mind the following: the UK’s Domestic Extremism Database contains people like Green Party Politician Jenny Jones, whose movements have been tracked since 2001 including her

speaking engagements at events including police violence protests, a Stop the War rally in 2007 and a protest against the growing of genetically modified wheat crops in 2012.

Call the Greens extreme tree-huggers if you like but extremists? Surely not. However, if speaking at events like police violence protests or Stop the War rallies lands you on the Domestic Extremism Database then what is to say that the same thing could not make you subject to a Banning Order?

Banning Orders could

result in those targeted being stopped from taking part in public protests, from being present at all in certain public locations, from associating with named people, from using of conventional broadcast media and from “obtaining any position of authority in an institution where they would have influence over vulnerable individuals or children”.

So, correct me if I’m wrong but what the British Tories are proposing basically amounts to further surveillance powers under the Snoopers Charter in addition to further powers to take away people’s civil rights and liberties. At the same time, they are also proposing to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights and to scrap the Human Rights Act. Notice a pattern? Yes, same here.

Mind you, May accusing the Lib Dems of causing “a crisis in national security” by opposing the Snoopers Charter also follows a pattern: not too long ago, she asked those opposed to the detention of David Miranda at Heathrow Airport to “think about what they are condoning”(“what” in this utterance equals terrorism). Turns out, Snowden’s leaks have done nothing to help any terrorists – so, naturally, neither have the people involved in them. This was obvious to most reasonable people anyway but it seems that, not only in light of the Tories’ plans, stating the obvious, repeatedly, is necessary.

Bizarrely, the Tories now have the lead over Labour again for the first time in a long while. Does that mean that the majority of British people are actually happy to have their civil rights and liberties infringed? Or do we just not (as I asked in my other post) take any of this security business (internet or otherwise) seriously enough to sit down and actually think about what our politicians are promising threatening to do once elected? Just like withdrawing from the ECHR isn’t just about restoring sovereignty to British courts, ramping up surveillance isn’t just about combating terrorism. It is about control.

Our political leaders know full well that the Internet is serious business. Which could come back to haunt us if we don’t catch up very quickly and – in addition to the fun and games – realise that we need to take the internet and our own security in it much more seriously too. Clearly, trusting government or legislation to solve the problems of the internet for us will only go so far for a number of reasons. Potential government overreach is only one of them. The other is the “dark side” of the internet, if you want to call it that, the side of it that is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to control. At least not if we do not want to clamp down on its positive flipside, internet freedom, as well.

Technology, on the other hand, and encryption in particular, offers some ways of making sure that neither governments nor other evil-doers out there wreak havoc on our lives (for example by leaking our naked photos from our iClouds). It affords individuals a means of protecting themselves against whoever might want to try and grab their data at a time when every single one of us puts far too much of their data out there – inadvertently or not, it has become almost impossible not to. And this goes far beyond social media at a time when most of our electronic devices come with an in-built internet connection or free tracking software. “A phone is a tracking device that also makes calls,” Julian Assange once said. He was neither wrong nor exaggerating.

So instead of attempting the impossible or relying on the improbable, why not take the possible a little more seriously? We may just to do in time to make us all a little safer – and to ensure that the internet remains ours – serious business or not.

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