When it comes to technology and security, politicians are caught between a dream and a nightmareby Tom Chatfield / January 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
Yesterday’s headlines give a pretty good idea of what a successful surveillance strategy looks like: “Two dead in Belgium as police foil ‘grand scale’ terrorist plot”, “Belgium Thwarts Terror Plot.” When information is accurate, timely and actionable, it can and does save lives.
Good news around terrorism is rare. Most prevention success stories can’t be boasted about; the worst possible news, as in the case of the Paris attacks, blots out all other events while begging the most painful of questions: what might have prevented this from happening—and why wasn’t it done?
In this sense, the Prime Minister deserves some sympathy for his comments on 12th January that “in extremis, it has been possible to read someone’s letter, to listen to someone’s call, to mobile communications… The question remains: are we going to allow a means of communications where it simply is not possible to do that? My answer to that question is: no, we must not. The first duty of any government is to keep our country and our people safe.” In every practical sense, however, the argument is alarming and ill-conceived.
While the case in favour of encryption shouldn’t need rehearsing again here, there remain questions on its flip side that are trickier to dismiss. Given that introducing government-mandated security vulnerabilities into every piece of software used in a country—from messenger services like WhatsApp to every potentially secure installable program for every operating system in use—is a daft idea, what might an intelligent digital surveillance strategy look like?
When it comes to technology and security, politicians are caught between a dream and a nightmare. One the one hand, there’s the seductive dream of algorithmic anticipation: a total knowledge vortex in which every future wrongdoing is flagged up, every suspect constantly monitored, every atrocity pre-empted. One the other hand, there’s the nightmare of untraceable technology facilitating any crime you care to mention: attacks planned with perfect impunity, drugs and guns and bombs freely traded.
Neither of these scenarios quite reflect reality (although the second comes closest), but it’s easy to see the political incentives…