It always happens. Whenever there’s a big and nasty (and by big and nasty, I mean well-publicised and involving rich white people) terrorist thing, you can start a timer. When major politicians suggest taking away people’s freedom and increasing surveillance, you stop the timer.
With the recent Charlie Hebdo murders, the timer was not running for very long. In the week after the murders, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, stood in front of a packed House of Commons and put both of his feet into his mouth at the same time. Now, politicians are quite good at speaking with a foot in the mouth – after all, they get a lot of practise – but it gets quite difficult when you’ve got both feet there. For starters, standing at the dispatch box is tricky, and the words start to become mangled and it sounds like the politician speaking is trying to legislate that black is white and that the incoming tide shouldn’t swamp the picnic.
In the House, Mr Cameron called the UK “a liberal democracy”. Fine. I happen to agree with him (mostly) on that point. He also said that “there should be no means of communication that we [the government] cannot read”. At Prime Minister’s Questions, he said
how important it is to stand together in favour of free speech, freedom of expression, the rule of law, democracy: the values that we hold dear… these values will not be defeated
Which is fine, until he said, just a few minutes later,
the decision I think we have to take is ‘are we prepared to allow,
in future, as technology develops, safe spaces for terrorists to
communicate. The principal I think we should adopt is ‘no we are not
content for that to happen and, as a result of that, we should look to
which is less fine. Largely because what he has in his mind is the end of encrypted communications on the internet, and a further increase in surveillance. In the UK, we seem to be among the most watched populations on the planet, with CCTV cameras absolutely everywhere, and the rather ominous Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, 2000 giving local authorities the power to have families followed if someone thinks they their child is attending the wrong school, and also giving the government the power to demand that an encrypted communication be decrypted (or the keys provided).
When Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, asked Home Secretary Theresa May about what the PM seemed to be suggesting, she decided against answering his question, instead suggesting that he was in favour of terrorism because he had the audacity to ask if the suggested legislation might have wider consequences than the PM or Mrs May had considered.
Like banning internet banking overnight. Like banning online shopping overnight. Like preventing secure access to anything online.
The internet is rather like a crowded pub on a Friday night. It is full of people. Not all of them are there just to have a drink with their mates. Some are there to take things that do not belong to them. It is not hard for a person with the right skills to monitor someone’s communication. A simple traceroute will tell you just how many staging posts your internet messages stop at for new horses en route from where you are to where they are going. At each stop, a nefarious individual can take a copy of your data. This is a problem if the data is you logging into your bank’s website, or sending your credit card number to an online retailer. It would be rather like buying something from a guy in the pub by yelling your credit card number across the bar and hoping that nobody writes it down as you do. On the internet, the answer is encrypted communication, which is a bit like leaving the crowded pub and entering a small, locked side-room where you can have a quiet, private conversation with whomever you wish to speak. Your credit card number is safe, as are your bank log-in details. Crucially, so are your Twitter log-in details and your Facebook log-in details.
Just think, for a moment, what would happen if you could not securely log in to social media. This is the other facet of encryption: authentication. If something appears on my Facebook account, people assume that I put it there. In order for me to have any confidence in Facebook, I need to be sure that the only person who can claim to be me is me. If I have to shout my log-in across the crowded pub, that means that anyone can then log in and pretend to be me, and utterly destroy my reputation with my friends, my family, my employer, etc.
Returning to Mr Cameron’s first point, are there any messages that I do not want the government to be able to read? The quick answer is yes, there bloody well are messages that I don’t want the government to read. For the same reason that I have a door on my house and curtains on my windows. I have privacy. In fact, the UN declaration of Human Rights demands that I am given privacy to conduct my affairs. When someone tells you that they have nothing to hide, therefore they have no fear of surveillance, they haven’t stopped to think for very long. Here’s a hypothetical conversation:
“I have nothing to hide.”
“Did you have sex last night? Was it with your husband? Did you make a lot of noise? Did you use the handcuffs I saw in your bedside drawer last week?”
“Do you mind if I announce your orgasmic liaison on Twitter? How about I put it in a full-page advert in the Daily Mail?”
The problem with “I have nothing to hide” is that we all have things to hide. Having sex with one’s spouse is completely legal and morally defensible. It is not something that we like to have plastered all over the tabloids for everyone to gawk at. How about that moment when you were dancing in the bathroom, using the hairbrush as a microphone, rocking out to Bohemian Rhapsody? Or the conversation you had with your doctor about the suspicious lump you discovered last week?
You see, we behave very differently if we think that we are being watched. Our freedom of expression is severely limited. We are no longer ourselves.
We are no longer people.