from the how-dare-people-have-walls dept
Over the weekend, Rolling Stone reported on a new propaganda campaign the United Kingdom’s government is rolling out to try to turn public opinion against end-to-end encryption (E2EE). It’s the latest salvo in the UK’s decades-long war against encryption, which in the past has relied on censorious statements from the Home Office and legislation such as the Snooper’s Charter rather than ad campaigns. According to the report, the plans for the PR blitz (which is funded by UK taxpayers’ money) include “a striking stunt — placing an adult and child (both actors) in a glass box, with the adult looking ‘knowingly’ at the child as the glass fades to black.”
This stunt, devised by ad agency M&C Saatchi, is remarkably similar to one of Leopold Bloom’s advertising ideas in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “…a transparent show cart with two smart girls sitting inside writing letters, copybooks, envelopes, blotting paper. I bet that would have caught on. Everyone dying to see what she’s writing. … Curiosity.” (U154)
A century ago, Bloom the ad man cannily intuited how to achieve an agenda by manipulating humans’ nosy nature. And now the UK government — possibly the nosiest humans on earth — is betting it can do the same.
The evil genius of this bit of propaganda is that it works on two levels. The link between them turns on the symbolism that, as my Stanford Internet Observatory colleague David Thiel observed, an opaque box with people inside is what’s otherwise known as “a house.”
On one level, the opaque room represents encrypted messaging. The audience’s inability to see what happens inside is meant to provoke sympathy for the child, who, it’s leeringly implied, is about to be victimized by the adult. This is supposed to turn the audience’s opinion against encryption: Wouldn’t it be better if someone could see in?
But focusing on this shallow symbolism ignores what’s right there on the surface. On a different level, the opaque room isn’t a metaphor at all. It is just what it seems to be: an opaque room — that is, a house.
The audience isn’t meant to sympathize with the people inside the home, people just like them, who can shield themselves from prying eyes. Rather, they’re meant to sympathize with the would-be watcher: the UK government. On this level, it’s the frustrated voyeurs who are the victims. Their desire to watch what happens inside has been stymied by that demonic technology known as “walls.” Wouldn’t it be better if someone could see in?
To be sure, the glass room is, as it seems, an unsubtle allegory meant to gain public support for banning encryption, which allows people to have private spaces in the virtual world. E2EE protects children’s and adults’ communications alike, and by focusing on adult/child interactions, this stunt hides the fact that removing E2EE for children’s conversations necessarily means removing it for adults’ conversations too. So on one level, it’s normalizing the idea that adults aren’t entitled to have private conversations online.
But the campaign’s more insidious message is literally hiding in plain sight. By portraying the transparent room as desirable and the opaque room as a sinister deviation from the norm, the government is peddling the idea that it is suspect for people to have our own private spaces in the physical world.
The goal of this propaganda campaign is to turn the UK public’s opinion against their own privacy, not just in their electronic conversations, but even in the home, where the right to privacy is strongest and most ancient. Were the Home Office to say that overtly, many people would immediately reject it as outrageous, and rightly so. But through this campaign, the UK government can get its citizens to come up with that idea all on their own. The hook for this hard-to-swallow notion is the more readily-accepted premise that children should have less privacy and be under more surveillance than adults. But if it’s adults who harm children, then the conclusion follows naturally: adults had better be watched as well. Even inside their own homes.
This isn’t a new idea; it’s a longstanding fantasy of the British government, given voice over the centuries by authors from Bentham to Orwell. Heck, general warrants were one of the causes of the American Revolution against the British government. But the new twist of hiring an ad agency to sell people their own subjugation, using their own tax money, is just insulting. Here’s hoping the Home Office’s anti-privacy ulterior motive will be like that glass box: people will see right through it.
Riana Pfefferkorn is a Research Scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory.