Friday 20 April 2012

Jedi Knights 1 : 2 Empire

Fellow privacy advocates may agree that it was a funny old day yesterday for our lot. As the saying goes, things tend to come along in threes , and yesterday this is exactly what happened.


To start with the good stuff, Matron spent the afternoon at the excellent “Scrambling for Safety” conference hosted by the LSE and organised by the Open Rights Group, fipr and Privacy International to kick-start a nationwide campaign against the UK government’s latest surveillance brainchild, the Communications Capabilities Development Programme. And an excellent conference it was too despite that fact that much of the preaching was done to a very receptive choir. This was not the organisers’ fault – Matron was reliably informed that enourmous energies had been expended trying to get people from different backgrounds and with different views to speak on the subject.

But when even a senior cop (Sir Chris Fox QPM, first President of the Association of Chief Police Officer) condemns the proposals as unworkable and unnecessary, when the guys from the Home Office prefer to pull up the draw bridge, and when the Labour Party (possibly acutely aware of the embarrassing fact that the proposals are a carbon copy of the Interception Modernisation Programme they themselves proposed in 2009) fails to respond to the invitation, who else is there to speak out on behalf of a project that could cost the country billions, violate the fundamental rights of millions of citizens and have no beneficial effect whatsever? The people who are likely to make a mint from flogging the technology – first to the UK, then to other “benevolent” regimes? Well, yeah, now there’s a conversation that is likely to happen in the spirit of openness and full and frank disclosure. Not!

But leaving that aside, Matron has nothing to add to her own recent post on the CCDP and fellow blogger Paul Bernal has already expertly summarised the SfS2012 conference. The conference was the start of a campaign that, Matron still feels, at a political level in the UK is ultimately winnable. So please concerned people of all ages and political pursuasions, join the fight, support one of the groups mentioned above by giving your time, expertise or even just money and help prevent this from happening.

Come fly with me (well, maybe not…)

The second thing that happened yesterday was less enjoyable. Matron is speaking, of course, about the European Parliament's decision to approve the international agreement between the EU and the US on the collection and transfer to the US Department for Homeland Security of the passenger names records of all citizens boarding a plane to the US from an EU member state. This agreement has been controversial for years and much more information than Matron could ever provide in this short space can be found on the website of European Digital Rights (EDRi). However, a few words on the procedural aspects of this decision.

Matron can’t say that the result of the EP’s vote has come as a surprise to her. With regard to matters of privacy and surveillance a pattern has been emerging here for some time where the EP – seemingly more concerned about its own role in the legislative process than the issues at stake – makes an almighty fuss about privacy and safeguards and the impossibility of it all until someone lets it onto the playing field to kick the ball around for a bit, after which it quietly returns to the bench with a content smile and lets those who really run the show get on with it.

Of course, this damning judgement does not apply to ALL MEPs, and Matron must particularly commend the work of , and the stance taken by, Sophie In’t Veld (ALDE, NL), who was the rapporteur for the LIBE committee which had recommended that the agreement should be rejected and who reportedly withdrew her name from the report after the vote.

However, the EP’s role in these matters is becoming almost as much of a trigger for privacy campaigners’ frustration as the inevitable outcomes of the various legislative proposals, almost all of which promote what Bruce Schneier calls the false dichotomy of privacy v security. MEPs should therefore ask themselves whether they are doing their own reputation any favours in the long run, if they never grasp the opportunity to stand up – and be seen to stand up – against the whimseys of their political paymasters.

The EP’s powers in the legislative process were increased in the Lisbon Treaty specifically with the aim of ensuring democratic controll and accountabilty. It is currently quite blantantly not fulfilling that role in many, many cases.

Bonnier Audio v Perfect Communication Sweden AB

Speaking of EU institutions that “could do better”: before she swanned off to her conference yesterday, Matron had the dubitable pleasure of having to write up the ECJ’s decision in Bonnier Audio v Sweden.

This decision was expected to provide some clarity on whether IP rightsholders should be allowed to demand the disclosure from ISPs of data identifying those ISPs' users for the purpose of bringing claims for illegal filesharing against those users. The best (and briefest) answer to this question may very well be that the ECJ - unhelpfully - has left many questions unanswered. However, Matron has made a stab at a fuller account of the judgement in a separate post for those with a masochistic interest in the lengthy and complicated analysis of ECJ judgements.

The end is nigh?

So what to make of this day? Is there a clear direction discernible of whither we are headed in the area of information privacy? Is it all doom and gloom? Is the end of civilisation as we know it imminent?

Well, the best one can probably say for all these developments is that they show that legislators, law enforcement agencies, security services, rightsholders and online providers are not allowed to ride roughshot over individuals' rights without there being at least a great deal of opposition, albeit that this opposition comes from a fairly small number of people. However, as SfS panellist, David Davies MP pointed out during his panel yesterday, that small number of people is endowed with a disproportionate amount of skill, knowledge and expertise as well as the willingness to put it to good use. We are also quite stubborn.

So maybe things are not as bad as they sometimes feel and maybe that move to the Outer Hebrides can be put off for a little while longer. As any good lawyer would say, it all depends. On a bad day, the temptation to do nothing and watch reruns of the Big Bang Theory instead is amost irrisistable. On a good day, Matron tries to remember the words of her favourite philospher, Albus Dumbledore, when asked whether opposition to Lord Voldemort would necessarily be in vain:

"[W]hile you may only have delayed his return to power, it will merely take someone else who is prepared to fight what seems a losing battle next time – and if he is delayed again, and again, why, he may never return to power."

And on that note, good night and good luck, fellow conspirators!

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