There’s a fascinating interactive map of the world’s undersea communications cables here. It’s also a pretty good guesstimation guide as to where there are, or are likely to be, NSA or subordinate agencies’ (and other non-affiliated intelligence services’) field stations that funnel the data flowing through such cables through computer systems that analyse traffic and content data.
The BBC reports that the UK Home Office has been forced by the European Union to accept input from civil and digital rights groups over the revision of its Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) – I’ve posted lots on RIPA here in the past, so it’s worth doing a search of this site for some of the backstory.
The u-turn was apparently sparked by the EU’s report on the Phorm debacle (see also here) which, amongst other things concluded that the UK was in breach of the Privacy Directive for having no adequate complaints procedure or systems of legal redress for those who believe they have been subject to illicit surveillance. Amongst the little nuggets in this story is the fact that since its creation in 1986, the Interception Commissioner has upheld four complaints. Yes, four. 4.
The consultation has also been extended to the 17th of December, so get writing if you haven’t already made your views known. You can find the consultation document here (pdf).
I’ve noted before that there seems to be a concerted push around the world by governments to introduce comprehensive new telecoms surveillance laws that force telecommunications and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to record, store, and provide access to and/or share with state intelligence agencies, the traffic and/or communications data of their customers (in other words, users like us). What is noticeably here is that there is a particular logic that appears in the arguments of governments who are attempting to persuade their parliaments or people of the need for such laws. This logic that is firstly, circular and self-referential, in that it makes reference to the fact that other governments have passed such laws as if this in itself provides some compelling reason for the law to be passed in their own country. The second part of this is a king of competitive disadvantage arguments that flows from the first argument: if ‘we’ don’t have this law, then somehow we are falling behind in a never openly discussed intelligence-capability race that will hit national technological innovation too.
The media often seem oblivious to what seems obvious, and hence the story on the CTV news site today with reference to Canada’s currently proposed communications law that would allow the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) warrantless access to such the data from Internet and telecoms providers. They consider it to be ‘unexpected’ that the parliamentary Security Intelligence Review Committee has come out in support of the bill. Looking at the reasons why though, they are exactly what one would expect if one has been following the debates around the world and contain exactly the logics I have outlined. The story notes that the committee “points out that governments in the United States and Europe have already passed laws requiring co-operation between security agencies and online service providers” (without, incidentally, pointing out that these remain enormously controversial, or that other governments have abandoned some of their attempts) and later that “intelligence technology… requires continued access to new talent and innovative research.” However they won’t go into details as it is a “very sensitive matter.”
And absent from this debate as usual is the fact that this is not just a question of ‘national security’ if you set up these systems, you feed the US National Security Agency too. Canadian intelligence is still bound by agreements made after WW2, particularly the CANUSA agreement on Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), later incorporated into the UKUSA structure. And as we all know, right now, the USA does not always have the same strategic interests as Canada (the issue of arctic sovereignty is just one example). If this bill is passed, it’s a license for US spies, not just Canadian ones.
Contemporary social sorting techniques look for abnormality, but the norms are increasingly defined by reference to the methods of sorting themselves. Thus not wanting to be under mass surveillance makes you suspicious and a subject of targeted surveillance; research into, or resistance or opposition to surveillance also makes you a suspect…
There is a really good article by David Mery in The Register, which provides a nice summary of the current situation regarding the mass surveillance of mobile telecommunications in the EU and the UK specifically.
One particularly interesting point he makes is that the combination of the ubiquity of the mobile phone – there are more phones than people across most of Europe now – with the routine nature of mass state surveillance of telecommunications traffic and mobile phone location, means that not carrying a mobile phone is now grounds for suspicions. One item in the ridiculous German anti-terrorism case against the academic, Andrej Holm, was “the fact that he – allegedly intentionally – did not take his mobile phone with him to a meeting is considered as ‘conspiratorial behavior.'” In te similarly ridiculous arrest of a load of back-to-the-land communards at Tarnac in France, their lack of mobile phones was also considered to be suspicious and evidence of ‘clandestinity.’
This is a key indication of living in a ubiquitous surveillance society – when the norms of surveillance practice start to be seen by the state (or indeed people) as a more general societal norm, and nonconformity is grounds for suspicion. The surveillance society is a self-referential, self-reinforcing one. Contemporary social sorting techniques look for abnormality, but the norms are increasingly defined by the methods of sorting themselves. Thus not wanting to be under mass surveillance makes you suspicious and a subject of targeted surveillance; research into, or resistance or opposition to surveillance also makes you a suspect (as the current London Met poster campaign also shows). The normalisation of surveillance potentially makes suspicious anything that we do that makes state surveillance of more difficult. It is no longer a case of a passive ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’, but that not volunteering to be under surveillance makes us ‘abnormal’.
This seriously affects our civil liberties, but it has the potential to affect something more fundamental too – our autonomy, that is the ability to define ourselves as indviduals. Contemporary surveillance societies have started to impose categorisations and indentifications onto people that have nothing to do with how we feel about our identities. These categorisations not only stand for us in specific negotiations with the state (as they always have done in the past), they appear increasingly designed to erase identity (or even the potential for the self-construction of identity) and replace it with an identificatiton, by reinscribing the state categorisation, derived from surveillance, back onto the person and their behaviour.