Remembrance is not just before Christmas

Major politicians of the Western democracies are of an awkward generation.

Too young to have experienced much of the Cold War, the UK’s ‘Troubles’ in the 1970s, or many of the other threats to integrity before the late 1990s, they are also too old to have any fundamental understanding of major modern technologies such as the Internet. As a result they and their advisors appear to be stumbling around in the dark.

Seemingly beset by threats to Western democracy, most of their responses (no matter what their political persuasion) seem to be hell-bent on undermining if not destroying that democracy. Yet, as any 15 year-old hacker of telecommunications companies will tell them, those responses are incapable of accomplishing what they want.

First they want to ban encryption, then they want every encryption scheme to have a built-in backdoor. Then they want to be able to find out every webpage which we have visited, then they claim that they are only really interested in websites (not that they seem to understand the difference between a URL and a domain name). Next some bright spark will suggest having a secret port opened in every router, so that thought police can check nightly that you haven’t done anything naughty during the day.

Over the next few days, those same Western democracies will parade in front of war memorials, in the company of the dwindling few who must be wondering what the hell they bothered fighting for, in the Second World War and subsequent conflicts.

Ironically those veterans endured physical and economic austerity of a degree that makes our current situation appear lavish and extravagant. But their austerity was shared throughout society, led by an upper class and politicians who were just as exposed to the privations and dangers. They were all in it together.

When the UK suffered the greatest post-war threat to its integrity and safety, during ‘The Troubles’, when long and bitter conflict spilled over from Ireland to the British mainland, we did not let it threaten daily life, nor compromise society’s values and principles. Indeed our insistence on carrying on as normally as possible led to the death of Lord Louis Mountbatten, a distinguished veteran of both World Wars, when his boat was blown up off the Irish coast in 1979, and the near-death of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the Brighton hotel bombing of 1984.

In a speech to her constituents a couple of months later, Thatcher said about the bombers: “They were trying to destroy the fundamental freedom that is the birth-right of every British citizen, freedom, justice and democracy.”

It is worrying to think how those ‘birth-rights’ have been eroded since, ostensibly in the defence of those freedoms.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the authorities – that is to say law enforcement in its various departments and guises – are trying to gain access to as much of our electronic communications and activities as they can. Even courts, whose primary role is the serving of justice, have been putting pressure on providers such as Apple to try to get them to give access to private data.

In the UK, law enforcement agencies can already obtain information about phone calls and email without the involvement of courts or the judiciary, and the intention is to widen those powers to include a broader range of information including websites. Unfortunately the politicians who have been making pronouncements about this appear unable to distinguish between IP addresses, domain names, and URLs, and have been far from clear what data they wish to be surrendered in this way.

One of the fundamental distinctions between a free democracy and police state is the level of control over access to such personal data.

In a police state, such matters are determined by the law enforcement agencies themselves, and any oversight of their actions is sufficiently distant as to allow them such access as they might wish. This ensures that someone who has fallen foul of those agencies can be put under surveillance and investigated until sufficient evidence has accrued (or been manufactured, if necessary) to accuse them of a crime.

In a free democracy, its citizens are presumed innocent. It is only when the law enforcement agencies consider that they have sufficient evidence to undertake surveillance as part of an investigation that they take that evidence to a court or the judiciary, and convince them that it is enough to carry out more invasive investigations, in preparation for due legal process.

Already the UK has – in the name of freedom and democracy – taken the dangerous step of removing controls from the courts and judiciary, and making oversight so high-level that it is unlikely to detect individual abuse. And the truth of the matter is, as I have written before, that these undemocratic powers are very seldom used against terrorism, but mainly in the investigation of regular crime.

But behind all this is the most astonishing naivety which I can only attribute to ignorance of the fundamentals of computing, the Internet, and electronic communications.

These same law enforcement agencies are busy funding and staffing ‘cyber-warfare’ units to tackle sophisticated attacks which they claim will be made by terrorist organisations and others. Presumably those are different organisations from the ones which will be dumb enough to use conventional devices to browse sites instructing them how to conduct ‘cyber-warfare’, or to discuss their next attack on Facebook.

Even if a terrorist or (dis)organised criminal were to be so dumb, in a real democracy we allow freedom of belief, so trying to use evidence of website visits as a means of convicting someone of a crime would hardly be a wise course in a conventional court under normal law. The only way to make such surveillance data an effective instrument would of course be to enact new law which ate away further at the remains of democracy.

When he was in exile in Finland in 1941, Berthold Brecht wrote his disturbing satirical allegory of Hitler’s rise to power, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Its closing lines (also quoted in Cross of Iron (1977)), referring to Ui/Hitler are:
“Don’t yet rejoice in his defeat, you men! Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

In the coming days of remembrance, I think that each of our politicians – in government or opposition, of all houses – should look a veteran in the eyes and assure them that they do remember what they fought for, and that they will defend freedom, justice, and democracy.