Australians! Let us all rise up against data retention

State surveillance will force us to build privacy tools that degrade our polity

Comment No one likes being watched. The moment another eye sets upon us, we seize up. All our fluid actions become forced, unnatural and overthought. We dream up all sorts of ridiculous schemes that might allow us to hide in plain sight as we wait impatiently for that gaze to move elsewhere. Could we find clothing that blends in with the wallpaper? Produce a distraction that allows us to slip away? Or maybe insist that we have right to privacy?

Someone recently told me of a proposal to establish a system whereby the popular Linux distros would be mirrored under provocative names that borrow the title of the latest, bloated, overwrought Hollywood spectacle. You might be downloading Slackware, but to any prying eyes it’d look as though you’d pirated Guardians of the Galaxy. Clever, eh?

Surveillance struggles with a constant battle between signal and noise: what is worth watching, and why? Fill the channels with misinformation and surveillance becomes impossible. A wider net captures more noise, drowning out any hope of signal.

Others look to cryptography to save them, hiding behind transport layer security (TLS – and let's hope the NSA and friends haven’t backdoored it) or virtual private networks (VPNs) to give themselves a bit of privacy. Both work for now, but politicians don’t like it when the public hides from view. As The Reg has written Cryptography has become suspicious - a tool of pedophiles and terrorists - except when used by the state.

Everywhere we see governments working to erase the private corners where we live unobserved. They want to censor privacy in an act of doublespeak that touts privacy as a political ideal, while making it impossible in fact.

A long time ago - before El Reg, and almost before the Web - my friend John Gilmore quipped: “The net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.” Most presumed his maxim applied only to authoritarian regimes like China and Iran. But Gilmore’s Law respects no political affiliations. Whether you’re a state trying to stop political leaks or a multinational entertainment company combatting piracy - any act of censorship produces the conditions that undermine its effectiveness.

The recording industry strangled Napster in the cradle, thinking they’d put an end to peer-to-peer music sharing. Within a few days Gnutella appeared, a decentralized music sharing service that couldn’t be sued away. While Napster served up tracks, there was no need for a Gnutella. After it vanished, tens of millions began to work toward another solution, a solution that broke the recording industry forever.

This new era of state surveillance can only breed a new generation of tools that make systems like TOR look like toys. No one wants to be watched, and as soon as someone, somewhere comes up with an effective means to render users invisible, it will be adopted by everyone, everywhere, almost instantaneously. That’s the way it ever was, only now we’re better at it than ever before, because we share everything we’re learning as fast as we learn it.

Surveillance and privacy have always been a cat-and-mouse game. We’ve always believed those in power to be the cat, paws outstretched, playing with its prey. On a planet where over half of us now carry mobiles, and where in 2020 80 per cent of adults will be using a smartphone, those roles reverse. Soon the public will be toying with the eyes of the state, and the state will never again know who it can trust.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

There is still time to step away from a poisonous framing that presents only two options: the state and its nominated ‘enemies’. There’s an opportunity to build connections, to share with one another, learn from one another, and come to trust one another. That’s what civilised people do. Civilised people certainly don’t spy on their neighbors. That sort of behaviour should be called out for what it is - paranoid.

Some have argued that our security and the safety of our children demand these steps be taken. But if we think about our actions consequentially - something adults must do - then we need to acknowledge that mass surveillance will inevitably land us in a more chaotic and largely invisible online culture. That’s the way the world works. All those paranoia-fueled good intentions can’t change that.

The politics of power have always been shot through with the most disgusting forms of xenophobia, promising the prospect of a paranoid panopticon rapidly disintegrating into a darknet that would make even William Gibson’s eyes water. That’s not the world we want for ourselves or our children. We have an opportunity - and a duty - to resist this vision, before it becomes inevitable. Speak truth to power: Tell them the more they tighten their grip, more of the net will slip through their fingers. ®


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