West London Humanists and Secularists

"Is Privacy Old-Fashioned? - Is greater social connectivity through the internet worth the risk?"
A talk by Kate Russell - BBC Presenter - Meeting 18/07/2013

This talk was about a subject that was hot enough when Kate first agreed to give it but then came the flight from the USA of Edward Snowden and suddenly it was the topic of the day. Kate is a key member of the team for Click, BBC's flagship technology programme, and is the presenter and researcher for what is happening on the Web. As Edward Snowden's revelations unfolded, Kate got busy and the fruits of her efforts can be seen on her website . The talk she gave us was a preview of that research so that there is no point in repeating it at length when she says it in a better, and constantly updated form, on her website. However here are a few highlights and some points made during the ensuing discussion.

As long ago as 1999, Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems said, "You have zero privacy anyway, get over it." A comment which at the time caused outrage and indignation. Since then an increasing number of people have felt that all their electronic communications were being spied upon by US authorities, while the majority have seen them as paranoid. The revelations of Edward Snowden show that majority were wrong.

The secret Prism programme, of NSA and FBI, that Snowden revealed has been intercepting internet traffic and collecting personal information for years with the help of most of the major IT companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL Skype, You Tube and Apple. The Peering Links fibre optic cable has also been split for years (at AT&T offices} so that a copy of most traffic on the net goes through to the NSA. In UK, Theresa May was pressing for the passage of her Communications Bill (Snooper's Charter) which was rejected in late 2012 by Parliament. Now we learn that our GCHQ was already obtaining the disputed information via Prism and that the bill was just a way of legalising what was already happening. Very few people think this is democratic.

We have gone a long way towards enabling a police state without anyone seriously fighting it. This has happened because we value the convenience of credit cards, mobile phones, social media and so on and have accepted the risk. What can we do to combat it? Kate answers "No a lot". We can turn off the internet, throw away our credit cards, cover the cameras on our laptops, wear a mask. If we use a mobile phone, our calls can be overheard. Even when switched off, the phone is still letting listeners know where we are, unless we remove the battery.

A big point has been made by the authorities that the content of calls is not retained, only the metadata such as caller's location, owners' of lines, billing data, length of call. Given that they were quite happy to lie about keeping even metadata, can anyone feel much confidence that the authorities are not keeping content? Even with just metadata, because it is kept over decades, there is a huge amount of it and it is very easy to be selective and find a pattern of calls locations and times that can be made to look suspicious. This could be easily used as a tactic for repressing perfectly legal and reasonable opposition to governments. Kate made the point that it might be safer if they did keep content as this could establish the innocence of an activity. Worryingly, they could keep content to see whether it would help them but not admit it, so still using the freedom of constructing a story based on the metadata.

Kate told us a lot about different tools that might be used to keep one safe from prying eyes. An account of these can also be found on the aforementioned page on her website. It is questionable though whether any of this helps. For instance, a Google search for one of these ools will be immediately flagged to NSA. The more you use encryption the more NSA are interested and it has been revealed that they will hold on to encrypted files for as long as it takes them to crack them. Even without the resources of the NSAs, CIAs and FBIs, much can be done to invade our privacy. You might think you are helping yourself by passwording your more sensitive documents but tools for scanning a computer for passworded files are freely downloadable from the web and so are tools that can quickly crack most passwords such as those used by Microsoft Word. You are really just giving people a quick way of identifying the files they might find interesting.

The point was made that we all accept frequent operating system updates from Microsoft and Apple who could be doing anything they like to compromise the privacy of our systems. How safe can we be when both of these are known to have collaborated with the Prism programme? As the Prism debacle unfolded our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. This has become the standard way of justifying invasions of privacy by governments. Kate quite rightly said at the start and finish of her talk that,

"I have nothing to hide from those I trust."

Do you trust our governments never to abuse their power?   I for one will assume that anything I do on a computer or phone is public.

Philip Veasey 11 August 2013