What techies are missing in the debate over surveillance

I recently started volunteering for Julian Huppert’s campaign to become the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge. (For more on that, go to their website.) Some of the other volunteers were members of the tech sector; as such, they used a lot of encryption in their work, had a lucid understanding of how encryption works. Of course, we are all very strongly worried by the attitudes towards Internet surveillance and encryption that Theresa May and the Conservative Party seem to hold. These includes last year’s Snoopers’ Charter, which gives the option of requiring ISPs to hand over users’ browsing history to the state (and not just to police and security agencies, but also other, unrelated, branches of government). More recently, the section on digital issues in the Conservative Party manifesto* contains rather troublesome proposals, including

  • Verify, a single digital ID system to be used for both government services and private services such as banking, and
  • the words ‘we do not believe that there should be a safe space for terrorists to be able to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability’.

Unsurprisingly, the Manchester bombing last week will be used to justify activating the Snoopers’ Charter (but only after the election, of course!).

* I actually rather like some other parts of that section in the manifesto, especially ‘central and local government will be required to release information regularly and in an open format’; such a process would be long and costly, but would be very useful for future policymakers.

Like me, Julian and many others, they were quick to point out how heavily encryption is used in day-to-day, perfectly innocuous transactions over the Internet. (See also this piece by the web company Mythic Beasts.) We also knew how surveillance or web censorship could be defeated, using freely available tools such as Tor. Despite all these things, the Tory attitude towards Internet surveillance stands popular; Labour and the SNP abstained in the vote over the Snoopers’ Charter.

Why are we doing so poorly in this argument? One reason is that

The widespread public understanding of encryption is not accurate.

Or, more facetiously:

The debate over encryption is not a debate over encryption.

Okay, my use of the phrase ‘widespread public understanding of encryption’ may be a little hyperbolic, since I can’t speak for the country as a whole. But I think it’s clear that plenty of people don’t understand that normal people use encryption, not just criminals, perverts and terrorists. In some ways, this is laudable: it illustrates how computer and software manufacturers have been able to preconfigure their systems so that people can use them safely without having to think about all the processes (like encryption) that go on under the bonnet. The fact that computing is so accessible is a good thing. One should not need an understanding of mechanical engineering and combustion chemistry in order to drive a car.

However, the same sort of accessibility means that there is a large disjunction between how most people use their computers, and how techies use them. (I know ‘techies’ is a very loose term.) It’s true that policies such as censorship, surveillance and ‘bans’ on encryption can be defeated easily by those with the technical know-how. This doesn’t mean that the policy is moot, because

The effectiveness or otherwise of any policy depends on social factors as well as its technical merits.

Many people will go along with these authoritarian digital policies, reasoning along the lines of ‘I have nothing to hide, so I have nothing to fear’, or ‘we should do anything to keep our children and our country safe’. How else is it that the Great Firewall of China manages to keep a billion people in check, despite its many weaknesses?

The upcoming election may be a fait accompli as far as this issue is concerned. Labour is not devoted to protecting digital liberties, while the Conservatives are keen to abolish them. (Perhaps a third party, either in a coalition or in opposition, may be strong enough to moderate the government on this issue, but neither the LibDems nor the Greens are likely to be strong enough to do that effectively.) As we continue campaigning on this issue until and after the election, we must not focus too much on the technical weaknesses. In doing so, we’d risk blinding people with endless facts about Tor, VPNs, RSA and other obscure three-letter words and acronyms. Instead, we must focus on the social harms of a surveillance state and the benefits of personal privacy (including as a matter of LGBT+ rights).

Why I reject the term ‘virtue signalling’

The Manchester incident last night (reported on in detail here) was tragic, the attacker(s) deserve condemnation, and all those who sought to help (emergency services, but also hotels, taxi drivers and such) deserve praise for their humanity and love. That much should be clear. The Queen’s response was dignified and speaks for many of us.

In the wake of such a horrible incident, it would only be human to express solidarity for the victims. Indeed, many public figures with prominent voices have done so. Not all of them were equally well-received: Jeremy Corbyn’s tweet has received replies that accuse him of ‘[making] political capital out of people’s death under the guise of praising emergency services’. (See also Another Angry Voice‘s post on this.) The fact that his tweet is actually apolitical, and not fundamentally different in content from (albeit much shorter than) Theresa May’s statement is not important. (His later and longer statement is likewise uncontroversial in content, yet received similarly poorly.)

There is a popular attitude that ‘liberals and the left like to virtue-signal‘. This is applied at people who stand up for groups that they themselves do not belong to, such as male feminists, or people who don’t support black people being disproportionately wrongfully arrested and shot by police. Such people are only there to get attention, and don’t really care about the cause.

The snarl term ‘virtue signalling’ hasn’t been prominently applied to Jeremy Corbyn yet today, but that’s the implication. Why should one get so much flak for saying basically the same thing as Theresa May and the Queen? Few think that the Queen’s statement was a cynical move to exploit this incident in order to increase public support for the monarchy.

Why does ‘virtual signalling’ only apply to some causes, and not others? When Theresa May took the time out of her very busy schedule to join the Church of England in condemning the National Trust’s Easter egg hunt for not referencing Christianity, why was that not dismissed as merely ‘virtue signalling’, but given so much coverage?

Jumping to conclusions

As of the time of writing, very little is known about the attacker(s). This does not stop people from going ahead and assuming that they were Islamic terrorists, for example, in the Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan’s statement. ISIS has claimed responsibility, although their involvement has not been confirmed by any authorities. To get to the conclusion that ISIS is responsible, given the information currently available, you would have to say that ISIS is your most reliable source of information, more so than the police.

Damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t

Tim Farron, current leader of the Liberal Democrats, once said that he thought that homosexuality was a sin. This led to a lot of anger in some circles, and the fear that the Liberal Democrats would not fight sufficiently strongly for (or could even oppose) LGBT+ rights.

Farron has more recently clarified his position by saying that his ‘views on personal morality [didn’t] matter’ and that this was not party policy. The right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes has spun this as: ‘Tim Farron has his beliefs and he seems willing to compromise them for political gain.’

Nobody seems to think that the vegetarian Jeremy Corbyn would ban meat-eating if he got into power, or that it he’d be compromising his moral stance by not banning meat-eating. Why should LGBT+ issues be any different?

Two quotes of Confucius

The classical Chinese philosopher Confucius and his disciples set out a vision of a society in which people aspired to become junzi. The term translates literally as ‘noble’s son’, more figuratively as ‘superior man’ (cf. Nietzsche’s Übermensch), and embodies ‘gentlemanly’ virtues: honesty, sincerity, good manners, a love of learning, selflessness, and, most importantly, humanity, putting the lives of human beings before pursuits for wealth or pleasure. In such a society, the people would value principled leaders, whose policies would benefit all and whose words would be just.

Society has changed massively since Confucius’ time, much for the better: it is difficult to justify returning to such a patriarchic, feudal and superstitious time. However, the ethical principles of his school are still hugely relevant, and leaders, as well as we the people who elect them, would do well to read the Analects, even if we do not agree with everything in there. In light of the upcoming general election, I would like to draw attention to two quotes in particular.

The Master [Confucius] said, “Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue.”

Someone said, “Yong [a disciple] is truly virtuous, but he is not ready with his tongue.” The Master said, “What is the good of being ready with the tongue? They who encounter men with smartness of speech for the most part procure themselves hatred. I know not whether he be truly virtuous, but why should he show readiness of the tongue?”

As a bonus, here is an account from the Book of Mencius of Confucius’ disciple Mencius with a king of a city-state:

‘Your dogs and swine eat the food of men, and you do not make any restrictive arrangements. There are people dying from famine on the roads, and you do not issue the stores of your granaries for them. When people die, you say, “It is not owing to me; it is owing to the year.” In what does this differ from stabbing a man and killing him, and then saying – “It was not I; it was the weapon?” Let your Majesty cease to lay the blame on the year, and instantly from all the nation the people will come to you.’

King Hui of Liang said, ‘I wish quietly to receive your instructions.’

Mencius replied, ‘Is there any difference between killing a man with a stick and with a sword?’

The king said, ‘There is no difference!’

‘Is there any difference between doing it with a sword and with the style of government?’

‘There is no difference,’ was the reply.

Mencius then said, ‘In your kitchen there is fat meat; in your stables there are fat horses. But your people have the look of hunger, and on the wilds there are those who have died of famine. This is leading on beasts to devour men. Beasts devour one another, and men hate them for doing so. When a prince, being the parent of his people, administers his government so as to be chargeable with leading on beasts to devour men, where is his parental relation to the people? Zhong Ni said, ‘Was he not without posterity who first made wooden images to bury with the dead? So he said, because that man made the semblances of men, and used them for that purpose – what shall be thought of him who causes his people to die of hunger?’

Mathematical hairstyling: Braid groups

At a recent morning coffee meeting, I was idly playing with my hair when this was noticed by a couple of other people. This led to a discussion of different braiding styles and, because we were mathematicians, a discussion of braid theory. I continued to spend a lot of time reading about it. (Nerd-sniped.)

I didn’t know much about braid theory (or indeed group theory) before, but it turned out to be a very rich subject. I remember being introduced to group theory for the first time and finding it very hard to visualise abstract objects like generators, commutators, conjugates or normal subgroups. Braid groups may be a very useful way of introducing these: they can be demonstrated very visually and hands-on.

Continue reading Mathematical hairstyling: Braid groups