Wednesday 21 August 2013

Total surveillance: a false sense of security

I have to confess that I have drifted away from traditional Liberal issues in the search for non-traditional ones, like the new Liberal economy that we Liberals never quite articulated.

But reading Alan Rusbridger's editorial in the Guardian has reminded me how little you can trust a state with too much power, and how important this is.  This is what he wrote:

"The state that is building such a formidable apparatus of surveillance will do its best to prevent journalists from reporting on it. Most journalists can see that. But I wonder how many have truly understood the absolute threat to journalism implicit in the idea of total surveillance, when or if it comes – and, increasingly, it looks like 'when'..."

These issues are tremendously important, especially after the New York Times story this morning about new systems of facial recognition which adds another dimension to total surveillance.

First, we reacted with horror to the idea of 'total surveillance' as carried out in East Germany by the Stasi, in the days before IT made these things easier.  Just because you no longer need armies of internal security personnel, it does not make total surveillance any less dangerous.  Because when you give governments that kind of power, it will be abused.  It always is - and their right to abuse it is always interpreted as a security issue.

Second, with governments like ours, it will be a substitute for proper security.  This becomes an item of belief by ministers and officials who have come to think that appearances really are more important than reality. 

What other interpretation can you put on the official efforts to destroy the Guardian hard-drive copy of Edward Snowden's material, when they knew perfectly well that they had access to at least two other copies on the other side of the Atlantic?

But the third is most worrying.  Total surveillance does not work.  It is part of the same IT fantasy pedalled by the IT consultants.  Real security requires human intelligence and interpretation - it can't be done by a vast database listening to everything we say and recognising all our faces in the street.  Yet once the investment is made, that is what security officials come to believe.

After 9/11, it transpired that key CIA personnel with responsibility for al-Qaeda spoke no Arabic, and had been relying entirely on software and virtual intelligence systems.

That is why the obsession with what Rusbridger calls 'total surveillance' tends to get in the way of real security.  It helps terrorists but hinders everyone else.  It shouldn't do in theory, but in practice it does.  It forces security to look in the wrong places.  It shifts security resources in pointless directions.  It also deludes those responsible for such things by lulling them into a false sense of security...

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