Little Brother

JQP note: This article re-appears here by kind permission of the editors (one of whom is the Head Research Otter) over at PSUK, for whom it was originally written. I urge anyone concerned about the balance between citizen autonomy and state control to read and contribute to their project.


Sometimes, I wonder whether the human habit of gerontocracy can survive in a high-bandwidth society. Clearly, the experienced are better administrators than those who haven’t learned the hard way; not necessarily better policy makers, but certainly better administrators. But when Moore’s Law has taken over your world and the pace of change, particularly in the sphere of data generation, acquisition and analysis, has become so fast that the map can shift under the territory faster than you can draw, how can we ask people born before the fax machine to understand and legislate about technology?

“This consultation covers an important topic that affects us all. The capability to use communications data to protect the public is being eroded by new technology. In seeking to maintain that capability, the Government must strike the right balance between public safety and privacy.” — UKGov

Surveillance has historically been about desperately trying to get enough data to analyse, so that you can figure out what just happened. Then people got into the whole computer thing, and it became about trying to get enough data to analyse that you could figure out what’s happening right now. That’s really hard, and well beyond the ambitions of any government or state intelligence agency (I include Scotland Yard in that definition) prior to 1975. Except GCHQ but they were always a bit special.

When the PC revolution hit, though; when we started being able to collect data faster and more comprehensively than ever before, the agencies started to run into the data/information paradox. Data is 1s and 0s. Data is irrelevant without analysis; and if your mission is to chart and track the world and all it’s myriad, wonderfully chaotic humans then data is history unless the analysis is timely. Real-time, one might argue. And the problem they’ve had ever since is that data acquisition and storage capacity far outweighs either speed of analysis, or accuracy of it. Unfortunately, they’re getting pretty good at data analysis from their own point of view; they have systems (Bayesian mathematics is useful here) which can determine a ‘typical profile’ and then apply it to data and tell you who doesn’t fit. Marketroids love that kind of thing; they only need to be accurate 1-5% of the time to make a profit.

However, as Cory Doctrow eloquently pointed out in Little Brother, that kind of accuracy rating sucks when you’re talking about arresting people. An aside on this book; it does what Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash between them tried to do, but does it better and has the added bonus of being (for the most part) accurate to the modern internet in terms of its details. The protagonist m1k3y lays out the problem with false postives in clear, layman’s terms; if you want to find something rare (e.g. terrorists [1]) you need an incredibly accurate search algorithm. The data analysis techniques in use by law enforcement, surveillance organisations and even ISPs are nowhere near accurate enough, or fast enough, to deal with the flow of data in real time.

So let’s return to this consultation. The quote above can be unpacked quite easily; what it means is the government know that their ability to spy on the populace is being compromised by the pace of change. Their attitudes can’t keep up; people just keep having new ideas, and the data flows just keep going up. What they want to store is traffic data; and if you have no problem with people profiling who you talk to, what you read and what MMORPGs you visit, then you need to ask yourself this: why should they care? About you specifically, I mean? The answer they will give you is “We won’t know until we’ve looked.”

This is industrial-era thinking. This is the world before the Wars trying to set policy for the Internet Generation. They do not understand the nature of privacy as it applies to high-bandwidth civilisation because they do not understand either the technology or the international, independent culture which it feeds. They have no way of comprehending, let alone implementing, “the right balance between public safety and privacy” because they understand neither the threats nor the concept of personal autonomy. To them, every citizen is a segment in their hive and the citizen’s data belongs, not to the citizen, but to the state.

The government now know that they can’t use comprehensive spying techniques to monitor their population in real time. Their dream of TIA is now beyond their intellectual capacity; they can’t win an arms race when the kids know the tech better than they do. Therefore, they are trying to pass a law which permits them to out-source the effort and the data storage, so that they can make use of one of our ideas: distributed processing networks do data analysis better than monolithic hierarchies. They want the ISPs to solve their surveillance problems for them.

Write to them. Get informed by reading the consultation PDF and surrounding material (have a look for data on the ISP industry’s fight against the RIPA: El Reg is a good start). Figure out what you think, and then let this guy know:

Nigel Burrowes
Communications Data Consultation
Room P.5.37
Home Office
2 Marsham Street
London SW1P 4DF

You can email them direct at communicationsconsultation at homeoffice dot gsi dot gov dot uk.

Get informed. Get involved. And never trust anyone over 25.


[1] Estimates by vaguely creditable people seem to vary between 2000 potential Islamist militants in or with access to the UK, and 4000 from the Torygraph. I can’t imagine them offering conservative figures on this topic, so let’s take that as the top plausible limit. That’s 4000/60,975,000 = 0.000065601 chance in 1 of finding a terrorist. That’s a pretty accurate search algorithm you want there. And that’s without considering noise interference in the data, badly designed search paramaters due to racist law enforcement, the fact that not all Islamist militants are ever going to be actual terrorists, and any number of other real-world factors that really screw with your math.

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6 Comments

Filed under Content, Signal

6 responses to “Little Brother

  1. Nile

    “We won’t know until we’ve looked.” is NOT industrial-era thinking!

    It’s a ‘fishing expedition’ if the authorities seek some pretext to search a citizen’s home, his office and his documents, in the hope that something incriminating will turn up. That citizen’s not even a suspect – there’s no specific offence the authorities can name – but if they get a warrant and keep sifting, eventually (they hope) they’ll find something – anything! – and nail the citizen for that.

    I need hardly point out that no magistrate with any sense of integrity would ever grant a warrant without good evidence or ‘reasonable cause’ to suspect that a specific offence was committed or conspired to: and, in the USA and elsewhere, the constitutional right to freedom from unreasonable searches has long been used to throw out prosecutions founded on a fishing expedition.

    There is worse…

    Beneath the gentleman anglers fishing on the banks of the river, there is a contemptible class of poachers who resort to using a dragnet. In policing terms, this is referred to as a ‘Trawl’. It is equivalent to searching and questioning everyone on a busy street, or cordoning a railway station on a Monday morning: if you search everybody, you’re bound to find someone with something you can nick them for.

    Needless to say, every modern nation under the rule of law forbids such actions as their citizens rightly regard such an imposition as unjust and oppressive: the word is tyranny and that is a type of thinking that predates the industrial era.

    What’s new in the age of electronic communications is that it’s technically possible to perform an intrusive ‘stop-and-search’ on the entire population, without the all-too-visible confrontation of a police cordon in the street, or ‘house-to-house-enquiries’ that systematically ransack every filing cabinet in every building, one after another.

    It was always possible for the police to steam open a suspect’s mail and mount a covert surveillance of his conversations and his ‘phone calls; democracies required a warrant and both they, and the totalitarian states who did so arbitrarily, were limited by the resource-intensive nature of the task.

    Technology has made it possible to snoop on everything a target reads, writes, speaks aloud or communicates to others. Democracy, in theory, provides a way of making sure that a ‘just cause’ and warrant-based limitation of Police powers confines such actions to those cases where a genuine suspicion of criminal conspiracy exists.

    What type of state would aspire to doing that to everyone? What type of policeman? We have grown used to tuning-out the usual hysterical exaggerations of the tinfoil-hat brigade, but a desire to ‘Trawl’ the entire population’s electronic life is de facto totalitarianism and a tyranny.

    You don’t have to be born before the fax machine to understand that: leaving aside the observation that there’s no age-related barrier to being an ‘early adopter’ of the new technology, I’d say that it requires a very callow and uneducated mind – a type of folly most associated with the young – to wish for such a thing. And it needs several of them in a room together to even think of making it a policy objective.

    • johnqpublican

      “We won’t know until we’ve looked.” is NOT industrial-era thinking!

      It’s part of an attitude that is, though. I was referring to pretty much the whole of the above, rather than just the last line of the above, when I made the quote.

      The industrial era had two attitudes which are no longer current and which make a significant difference. One was that government officers permitted to be intrusive would all be One of Us and therefore understand discretion. Nowadays, the local council busy-body who hates the kids can use anti-terror laws to have someone go through your garbage, and will then leak the results to the Sun.

      The other is that the citizen is the property of the state. And that was primarily the one I was referring to.

      Needless to say, every modern nation under the rule of law forbids such actions as their citizens rightly regard such an imposition as unjust and oppressive:

      Prior to 9/11 I’d have been inclined to agree with this assessment. Having spent time (and time incarcerated!) in nations which were not under the rule of law.

      Technology has made it possible to snoop on everything a target reads, writes, speaks aloud or communicates to others.

      Yes. The problem with industrial-era thinking is that they have always thought they had a right to the data, they just didn’t have anything like sufficient collection and analysis mechanisms, therefore people didn’t see it as a realistic problem. Now, it’s a realistic problem but only because they still think they have a right to that data.

      What type of state would aspire to doing that to everyone?

      A typical one. If you have a hierarchical/centralised state, which therefore relies on control rather than collusion to promote order, then it is in the interests of the state to criminalise the largest percentage of its population that they can. More on this in a full article at some point, but it boils down to ‘The state has no coercive power over the law-abiding citizen, therefore it is in the interests of the state to create laws so complex the citizen cannot tell if they have broken one’.

      You don’t have to be born before the fax machine to understand that: leaving aside the observation that there’s no age-related barrier to being an ‘early adopter’ of the new technology, I’d say that it requires a very callow and uneducated mind – a type of folly most associated with the young – to wish for such a thing. And it needs several of them in a room together to even think of making it a policy objective.

      It’s worth pointing out that I was born in the age of telex and saw my first fax machine in 1987.

      I disagree with your assessment of youth versus age politics, specifically because of the effect of the internet. I can’t discuss what it would have been like in the 70s, but today? People under 25 who grew up with instant messaging rather than IRC, who have always had access to a massively broader set of paradigms than anyone in a localised information environment, are overwhelmingly anti-authoritarian. Young people tend to be, because young people have no authority; older people tend to be authoritarian in our society simply because they’re the only buggers who have any. But that is a side issue.

      The post-Internet generation have a substantively different attitude in their political philosophies which derives from the multi-culturalism of the net. That generation are the most cosmopolitan the human race has ever seen. They may be sci-fi geeks from Nevada or Heat! fans from Ipswich but they’re still talking to random Singaporeans on IM; they’re still using Facebook to organise political campaigns about green futures as well as trips to the mall.

      They are, in fact, a generation who have grown up seeing a non-hierarchical system scale to embrace the world. No other generation has ever seen that. Ever. Until today, hierarchy always won. Now, it doesn’t have to. That’s instituted a change of epoch-making significance in the way the law-makers of thirty years hence will be thinking. Move autonomy to the edge of the network.

      • Chris Williams

        John, here’s a point of information:

        “That’s really hard, and well beyond the ambitions of any government or state intelligence agency (I include Scotland Yard in that definition) prior to 1975. ”

        Nah – NSY had ambitions to do this well before 1975. They used real-time CCTV surveillance for operational control in 1968.
        The intitial proposals for the system that saw the light as Airwave were worked out (as PEDEX) in about 1969. As for how early their _ambition_ ran, I’d guess at between 1950 and 1960. More research is necessary.

        • johnqpublican

          When you say NSY I assume you mean NSA?

          The distinction I see here is that the kind of operational control you’re describing is a) short term and b) extremely restricted theatre of ops. You use it to run a tail or surveillance operation on one guy, or a few guys.

          I’ve done town-centre CCTV monitoring, and that was with modern (mid-90s) tech. It took me and three other guys to have even the vaguest idea what was going on in Winchester. Add in all the guys you have to have supporting an op like that to make it meaningful and you have a surveillance team which can keep up with one or two guys which has maybe thirty people in it.

          The NSA was tasked with knowing what the hell was going on in a global theatre. The best they could manage was to figure out what had just happened, until international light-speed communications became an entrenched phenomenon. Seriously; if you’re thinking of satellites, do you have any idea of the latency on those links? Considerably worse than a trans-Atlantic cable. Soviets had the same problem. Place was just too big.

          The Great Machine series will be talking a lot about scale and bandwidth and how those things affect society.

  2. Chris Williams

    NSY = New Scotland Yard. Fair point re the operational use of CCTV – it was for set-piece public order events. But the point about Airwave is that it’s not. It’s pervasive, and brings the database, plus the ability to update it, onto the streets.

    This Great Machine stuff sounds interestingly like some things that I am working on, and it might be worthwhile your getting in touch on the email above.

    • johnqpublican

      Ah, I see :) I still think of them as just the Yard.

      The GM series is finished, in the sense that I’ve written it and the articles are auto-posting over the next couple of weeks. I’ll look forward to your responses :)