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).

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