Just Because It's Now Cheaper And Easier To Spy On Everyone All The Time, Doesn't Mean Governments Should Do It

from the Moore's-Law-strikes-again dept

Rick Falkvinge has another of his fascinating posts up on his Web site, but this one’s slightly different from his usual insights into the dysfunctional nature of copyright and patents. It concerns some little-known (to me, at least) history of how Sweden went from being a beacon of freedom to a country under comprehensive surveillance.

As Falkvinge explains, things began with what seemed at the time a very minor matter:

the FRA [a Swedish security agency] had used a loophole in the law since 1976 that allowed it (maybe) to wiretap all phonecalls that were routed over satellites, by erecting their own receiver dishes next to the telco ones. This allowed them to receive all the satellite signals, in identical copies to what the intended receiver dish did. The law they used to justify this behavior was one that said that privacy cannot be expected over radio waves, and that anybody may listen to anything sent over radio — which makes sense with shortwave-type radio amateur equipment, but not necessarily with satellite links: when you pick up the phone, you expect privacy, regardless of the technical route of the phonecall.

The key thing to note here is that there is a distinction being made between the vast majority of phone calls, and the special class of phone calls made over satellites. That meant that this was not a general spying capability, but a very limited one that only affected a class of users. Falkvinge goes on:

Fiber optics in the ground gradually replaced satellites as the preferred method of transmission, and the FRA complained to the administrative departments that it had lost its ability to wiretap, and wanted an amendment to the law that would — in their own words — just “compensate for technical developments”.

So the logic here is that the security services were beginning to lose a very limited capability for spying on a special class of user. But note what it demanded as a consequence:

What they asked for was a requirement for every owner of fiberoptics crossing the border to send a mandatory realtime traffic copy to the FRA. They demanded to wiretap everybody, all the time, if your phonecall or internet traffic happened to cross one of these checkpoints (which you can’t tell if it does or not).

So the FRA went from “using a possible loophole in the law to eavesdrop on satellites” to “demanding exactly everything all the time”. This was a little bit more than just an update for technical progress; this was a huge difference in scale and a near-complete abolition of the right to privacy.

The key trick employed here was to claim that the change was just to “compensate for technical developments”, and that there was some kind of equivalence between the eavesdropping on phone calls via satellites and those made via fiber optics. And it’s true that fiber optics largely took over from satellites, but that does not make them equivalent. They are quite different technologies, and spying on one is not the same as spying on the other — this was not truly about “preserving” a limited spying capability, it was taking advantage of the fact that it was now possible to spy on everyone in the same way, thanks to new technology.

Significantly, this is exactly the same argument that the UK government is making with what it calls its “Communications Capabilities Development Programme” (pdf):

Communications data — information such as who called whom and at what time — is vital to law enforcement, especially when dealing with organised crime gangs, paedophile rings and terrorist groups. It has played a role in every major Security Service counter-terrorism operation and in 95 per cent of all serious organised crime investigations. Communications data can and is regularly used by the Crown Prosecution Service as evidence in court.

But communications technology is changing fast, and criminals and terrorists are increasingly moving away from landline and mobile telephones to communications on the internet, including voice over internet services, like Skype, and instant messaging services. Data from these technologies is not as accessible as data from older communications systems which means the police and Security Service are finding it increasingly hard to investigate very serious criminality and terrorism. We estimate that we are now only able to access some 75% of the total communications data generated in this country, compared with 90% in 2006. Given the pace of technological change, the rate of degradation could increase, making our future capability very uncertain.

That is why, in the Government’s Strategic Defense and Security Review, published in 2010, we said we would “introduce a programme to preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain data and to intercept communications within the appropriate legal framework.”

Notice this is couched in terms of “preserving the ability” of security agencies to spy just as they did in the past. In other words, the UK government would have us believe that this is simply preserving the status quo. But as in Sweden, that’s not the case here:

We therefore propose to require internet companies to collect and store certain additional information, like who an individual has contacted and when, which they may not collect at present. The information will show the context — but not the content — of communications. So we will have for internet-based communications what we already have for mobile and landline telephone calls.

It’s still not entirely clear what the UK government wants to gather — it has been understandably evasive on this front — but it would seem to include things like recipients of emails, Skype contacts and addresses of Web sites visited (possibly even full URLs, which will point to very specific content.) But the details don’t really matter, because this is actually a question of principle.

The UK government, like the Swedish government before it, is trying to set up a false equivalence between monitoring communications before the Internet became a mass medium, and after. But the intrusiveness of such surveillance before the Internet, and before computing power was available to analyze the data gathered, was limited. Back then, working out the network of contacts of a person of interest could be done, but with effort, and at some cost. This ensured that only the potentially most serious threats were investigated.

But once again, Moore’s Law has changed everything. What the UK government wishes to gather would allow the entire social graph of everyone in the UK to be calculated in near real-time. It would mean that their every move online could be watched as it happened, and cross-referenced with their past communications history. As Falkvinge points out in another recent post, what has really changed is not so much the ability to spy, but the cost of doing so.

Today, thanks to our networked lives and the plummeting cost of hardware, national governments can monitor everything we do online for the same outlay as the much more limited surveillance of yesteryear. So what is really being preserved is not some supposedly circumscribed spying capability, but the orders-of-magnitude cost. By keeping that cost constant, governments can increase the scope of their spying hugely.

But just because the technology makes it possible, and the economics makes it feasible, doesn’t mean governments ought to go ahead and do it. They may claim that they are simply “compensating for technical developments”, but really they are trying to exploit those developments to go way beyond what was agreed before as socially acceptable, and to do so without any consultation on how much online surveillance should be permitted in a free society.

And as to the UK government’s argument that “we are now only able to access some 75% of the total communications data generated in this country, compared with 90% in 2006”, this conveniently skates over the fact that the quantity of such communications data has probably doubled in that time, since IP traffic is currently growing at around 32% annually: in absolute terms, more data is available than ever. This is not about preserving capabilities in order to stand still, it’s about running ever faster into a world of total surveillance.

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Comments on “Just Because It's Now Cheaper And Easier To Spy On Everyone All The Time, Doesn't Mean Governments Should Do It”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I am only drawing a parallel in things that are discussed here on techdirt. Piracy is considered inevitable because of technology and the ease by which it can be done. I think it’s the same for security and monitoring: As it gets cheaper and easier to do, it’s logical that there will be more of it.

Glyn’s entire argument is that “Now Cheaper And Easier To Spy On Everyone All The Time, Doesn’t Mean Governments Should Do It” – yet the same logic is used to justify things he likes.

I think it’s two faced.

E. Zachary Knight (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

No it is not two faced. our arguments here is that just because it is cheap an easy for the government to trample human and Constitutional rights.

However, when it comes to the march of progress in consumer goods, the free markets will always end up with the cheaper and easier options being the ones to survive. What is happening in the entertainment world is a select few companies that benefit from an artificial monopoly trying to block progress from being made.

In the war on piracy, there is no such human rights being protected by fighting piracy or the technological progress that is fulled by it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

They are both defined in the US constitution. You cannot choose one over the other as more important, as they are both there from the word go.

But all of that aside, you miss the point. The common justification for piracy is that it is cheap and easy to violate artist rights. You can copy their work all you like easily and quickly because technology allows it. There is no discussion of right or wrong, only that technology allows it, so do it.

What Glyn put forth here is that, even if it’s cheap and easy to do, that nobody should be monitored – even if the monitoring is in itself legal. Glyn tries to play a moral card here, which is entirely out of sync with the Techdirt reality.

Techdirt reality says that we should be able to do everything that technology allows. Well, this is the shitty end of things, but technology allows for your movements and actions to be monitored much more closely than they were before, and because you are passing your internet traffic through multiple providers you are also in a position to have your internet traffic monitored as well.

Technology allows it, it’s cheap, it’s easy, and the results may be good. So why not? If the only objection is on moral grounds, or on purely legal grounds, it’s not good enough – piracy ignores both, because technology allows it. Let’s apply the same standards, shall we?

Torg (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

“The common justification for piracy is that it is cheap and easy to violate artist rights. You can copy their work all you like easily and quickly because technology allows it. There is no discussion of right or wrong, only that technology allows it, so do it.”

It can not be prohibited. It is not possible to more than slightly affect piracy short of eliminating the internet and all network-capable devices. Governmental actions can be and often are prohibited. There is a big difference between the kinds of “easy” we’re talking about with those two issues.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

You are still missing it. You may be able to block the government, but can you block the guy next door? Can you block the techie at your local ISP, or some scammer online from doing it and then blackmailing your with the results?

Can they not “leak” the information to the police, and get you in trouble?

Do you honestly think they government won’t do it because it’s prohibited? They will just roll it into a covert ops anti-terrorism secret action section and do it there. If it can be done, it will be done.

It’s Techdirt rule #1, you apparently cannot stop what technology allows, even if you yell “stop” repeatedly.

Eponymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Re:

Listen Assnonymous Coward, you are not making a valid point! You’re falsely conflating governments with government employees in error to force this idea you believe to be fair turn around. While some people in government positions may utilise emerging technology in these ways, sure, and even push for their agenda to be legislatively enshrined. Though, if some employees at big media companies pirate copyrighted media does this say anything about their employers? No, and your scenario says even less about government for we control those people involved in key positions, and for those unelected we can elect others to push back against them. Thus this type government overreach can be contained, but the people and the market they represent can’t by the businesses involved in it. Apples meet oranges…

Anonymous Coward says:

and the majority of UK citizens wont be able to see or accept that. that leads to the majority of citizens in the EU being next and them not being able to see or accept that. then that expands to the whole world! trouble is, no country will be any better off because whatever one country learns, it will keep to itself, probably not even sharing with one of it’s so-called allies (plus they could be hauled into court for copyright infringement!)

Anonymous Coward says:

The sky is falling, the sky is falling! In an attempt to stop criminals that are using telecommunications, the government heard me talk dirty to my girlfriend and they know I bought a new toaster from Amazon. Oh the humanity. I feel so violated.

I know, I know. If we let them step on this right than they will take away all my rights. Give me a break. Take a pill and calm down.

DogBreath says:

Re: Re:

I know, I know. If we let them step on this right than they will take away all my rights. Give me a break. Take a pill and calm down.

Sorry, no can do. The right to “take a pill and calm down” has been taken away due to pharmaceutical piracy.

In other words, what may not be a crime today (and rightly so), can and will be a crime tomorrow. So, that record of you talking dirty to your girlfriend without a freedom of speech permit and buying a toaster from Amazon across state lines without obtaining a license to do interstate commerce by the federal government, will be held indefinitely until the time when it can be used as retroactive evidence against you at your trial, conviction and public hanging (or guillotine if you’re one of those lucky enough to live in France and piss off those in charge of HADOPI).

Andycap says:


All we need is a little bit of software that will in the background ping a few sites every second, then when the gov wants our info it will be useless as a ping is as good as a visit so the possibility of millions of random websites over a few hours browsing. Emailing is another problem but i am sure there must be a way to make our emails so difficult to monitor that the gov will just have to give up. See the problem for the gov here. Even those who they really have a reason to spy on will become almost impossible to hack. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. if they had kept the privacy rights intact for all citizens and only used court orders to spy on specific people they would not have made a market for all of the software now used to encrypt data, or vpn use or other methods of encrypting your communications across the Internet to prevent anyone from either viewing it or monitoring it . Give a programmer a problem and there are enough of them worldwide that at some stage someone is going to come up with a solution. There are already ways to use torrent anonymously and eventually i am sure there will be a program developed that will make tracking our browsing/email impossible.Suck’s to be a government spy now doesn’t it

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

The Mutual Surveillance Society

For the last 20 years, it has been becoming clear that the major users of cheap and easy-to-obtain ?surveillance? technologies will not be the Government, but the common public. Who?s that recording you being drunk in public? It?s not some police officer, it?s some random passer-by with a camera phone. And then they post it to some photo or movie website, and it goes viral, to your very eternal embarrassment.

While Governments can be powerful, they are also big targets, and they cannot hide from us. But ordinary people can be much harder to find.

In other words, a bigger worry than Big Brother will be Little Brother.

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