Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Dark Web at Cybersalon

To Cybersalon and this event, held in the delightfully grungy premises of advertising agency Digitalis in achingly cool Brick Lane. A young, educated audience – almost half women, and with a woman (Wendy Grossman) chairing, though very high beard density among the male members of the audience and no women on the panel. A strong contrast with the IoT event that I had attended in the morning, where almost everyone in the mainly government and corporate audience was over 40 and the 50 people in the room did not include a single woman.

Four presenters spoke briefly and clearly about internet privacy issues. Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos spoke about his new book The Dark Net, mainly about the sort of stuff that you can buy on The Silk Road 2.0 and how similar to conventional e-commerce sites the ‘dark’ stuff is. Sadly Dr Elena Martellozzo, a Criminologist at Middlesex University and specialist in sex offenders’ use of the internet and online child safety wasn’t able to make it, but Dr Gareth Owen, a cybersecurity and digital forensics researcher at University of Portsmouth spoke about his headline grabbing Dark Net study, mainly about how much Tor traffic (counted in a highly specific way) is to child-porn sites. There were two other speakers, both privacy geeks (in the nicest possible sense) and I’ll update their names later.

The general tenor of the comments from the latter two, and from Wendy Grossman, was that the right to privacy was absolute, that security services should be given no rights to surveillance, and that back doors into communications services would always be exploited by people even worse than the security services. The audience was much more evenly divided, and there were several comments to the effect that people would quite pleased for there to be surveillance of genuine terrorists. Jamie Bartlett argued for a sort of hopeless centrist position, saying on the one hand that the security services were giving the public what they wanted (without much reflection on why they wanted it) and on the other that electronic surveillance would become increasingly ineffective so that much more direct human intelligence (infiltration etc.) would be called for – he did rather call that ‘good police work’. There was also some good well-informed comment on the idea that it was OK to collect all this data, and to analyse it, as long as no human looked at it without proper legal sanction.

My problem with the whole discussion is this. I accept that there is a need for surveillance of real terrorists. I am pleased that the police eventually caught the neo-Nazi nail bomber, and if reading his emails or his Facebook posts would have caught him quicker then I’d be even more pleased, and some people would be more alive than they are.

But I don’t trust the actual agencies. I think they are as likely to consider people like me and my friends as a threat to the state, and they often don’t pay much attention to right-wing conspirators and terrorists. I don’t trust the people who are supposed to monitor and manage them either, who as we have seen have really funny ideas about human rights and national security. Me encrypting my emails and using a VPN doesn’t do anything to solve this fundamental political problem of how to have a secret security service in a democratic state. What to do about the ‘deep state’ has been a perennial problem for reformist or social democratic governments whenever they are elected, and I wish the newly elected Syriza government the best of luck with this.

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