John Farnsworth, an organiser of New Zealand’s first conference on internet surveillance at Otago University last week, reviews some of its conclusions
Like rust, online surveillance never sleeps. This was among the gloomiest themes to emerge from the first conference on internet surveillance held at Otago University last week. But the conference also revealed signs for hope, amidst widespread agreement about how many ordinary rights have been muted or removed by governments and big corporations. Some of these signs have arisen simply from public reaction to the extent of international snooping.
Three days of intensive discussion amongst 41 participants, swelled to a hundred for the four public keynote sessions. Each session, dotted throughout the conference, strung together surveillance, privacy and copyright issues. They saw hacktivists engaged with academics, policy analysts debating cryptographers, and former spies questioning legal experts.
The first of its kind, the conference threw into sharp relief the inequities and injustices that recent internet legislation has heaped on largely innocent users. New Zealand, as journalist Nicky Hager demonstrated, is as complicit as anywhere. This has been not just through the Search and Surveillance Bills passed last year, or the Bill now before parliament, but in its role as long-standing accomplice of the US Government through the Waihopa base and its part in the 5 Eyes international snooping arrangements. As Vikram Kumar, the former CEO of Mega, commented, more of New Zealand’s role will be revealed this year once further material from the Edward Snowden NSA tapes are released.
But if surveillance was one prominent theme so, too, was privacy. A significant issue often lost in public debate is the difference between privacy and anonymity. Vikram Kumar clarified this, describing how Mega, for example, internationally renowned for its encrypted cloud storage, is in the privacy not the anonymity business. The distinction he drew is that Mega will respond to reasonable requests to investigate illegal activity by site users who have violated privacy to gain anonymity.
The issue of privacy versus surveillance, and the place of citizen rights, percolated right through the conference. There was an impassioned defence of the rights of the individual to retain control over such data as personal health records, family secrets and the ordinary private affairs we all have. Professor Graham Murdock underlined the threats to privacy by pointing to the UK government’s recent announcement it will auction individuals’ health data to private companies.
Murdock also highlighted the dense entanglement of state and corporate interests. As he and many presenters emphasised, datamining lies at the heart of this issue: the gathering of Big Data and its use in predicting often invisible patterns of behaviour. athering Big Data allows predictive analytics to expose often invisible patterns of behaviour. Datamining compounds staggering amounts of digital traffic, literally trillions of items every day, sifting them through keywords and tags for markers of significance. But this ceaseless activity remains both largely ungoverned and highly obscure.
State and private agencies also use datamining for ‘fishing expeditions’. Spy agencies trawl the digital sea of individuals’ private records, intruding on anyone who has committed no greater crime than accessing the internet, a laptop or phone. Nicky Hager emphasised that any single individual has little chance of interception, though Judge Harvey later raised important civil liberties implications. He reminded his audience that in earlier days phone tapping carried tough legal restrictions and penalties, a dramatic difference to the often open season now in place.
In the private sphere, as the conference learnt, Big Data allows corporations, from casinos to online video companies, to anticipate behaviour before consumers know it themselves. This allows patterns of spending and consumer behavior to be shaped without their awareness. For example, increasingly companies can predict when employees may quit their job, a privacy concern. Or airlines instantly change online prices, based on closely forecasting seat demand.
Labour MP Clare Curran highlighted the stark imbalances in public and private transparency in another way. She pinpointed the growing lack of protection against state or private intrusion, and the obscurity in which corporations and the state operate. To redress this, she proposed a new digital Bill of Rights, one with real teeth that will protect ordinary citizens.
Her workshop saw ideas that flourished elsewhere throughout the conference. There was the idea of creating a guaranteed right to internet access that ensured free online speech , or running the internet as a public utility, similar to water or electricity. Professor Murdock broached the possibility of a public service internet which, like public broadcasting, functions on behalf of the public good.
Similar debates circulated around copyright. Copyright often protects corporations better than the creators they are meant to represent, and lies at the heart of the online piracy wars. Copyright is also transformed in a digital environment where nearly anything is copied and an original work can have the half-life of a firefly. Because artists seek distribution, alternative notions of Copyleft and a Creative Commons have emerged, but with a trail of accompanying complexities, as conference panels debated.
Underlying all this was the question of an open internet. Can it continue? Nicky Hager suggested it may continue to remain open, but it has never been secure. Other speakers reminded delegates there has never been just one internet. Others, such as Darknet, exist in parallel but may be inaccessible.
An open internet is also a mixture of code, content and agreed rules, and there was extensive debate how each of these contribute to its cohesion. Paradoxically, its openness also depends on secrecy: secure communication such as PGP cryptography enable legitimate free speech without state interference.
Yet conference discussion suggested the open internet may well crumble. Individual states, some reacting to the Edward Snowden revelations, are seeking to limit and manage internet access as China, for example, has long done. There was also clear agreement the internet upheavals will continue.
This may come from new revelations from the Snowden papers about New Zealand snooping or reaction to the latest surveillance Bill before Parliament. As participants agreed, watch this space and the ongoing internet freedoms connected to it.
Images by delegates from the conference.
Posted papers and slides
Angela Daly: Ubiquitous Surveillance and the Right to Anonymity.
Mark McGuire: Copyright, Creative Commons and Libre Culture in New Zealand.
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