The surveillance arms race

Just what is excessive?


Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Surveillance breeds more surveillance. That seems to be the primary message from the first day of this year's Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, held this week in Montreal.

The theme of the conference is "autonomy", one of those vanishing luxuries.

Lawyer Eugene Oscapella uses the war on drugs as an example. This effort provides the justification for all sorts of surveillance, from surprise school sweeps covering kids all the way down to kindergarten, to sending sniffer dogs through hotel rooms (besides airports, bus stations, and ferries), to dawn raids by police in full body armour and carrying machine guns. And the official explanation given after a failed bust? Policing is not an exact science.

Is flying over a house with a forward looking Infra-Red camera, as in the case of R v Tessling, invasive?

Since 2001, however, the war on drugs has been fuelling the War on Terror via the claim that terrorists are funded by the drug trade - and also by getting people used to being watched and searched. "The normalisation of extraordinary powers."

Some of that watching is being done by your own devices, as Simson Garfinkel explained in a discussion of computer forensics. Mobile phones are not standardised, so there is tension between law enforcement agencies, which want everything to be easy to read, and mobile phone companies, which may regard the inner workings of their designs as proprietary information. One English company has, however, come up with a scheme for reading mobile phone data directly from the SIM, bypassing the inconveniences of incompatible plugs and operating systems entirely.

Forensics breeds anti-forensics, so tools keep being developed to evade detection, disrupt the collection of information, and waste the examiner's time. For more, see the forensics wiki.

One interesting sideline: Garfinkel debunked the widespread belief that it's impossible to erase data from a hard drive in a single pass. On modern hard drives, he said, there's no evidence that you can't, and the National Institute of Standards (NIST) said in 2006 that a single pass is sufficient. But people just don't believe it.

Just as people also don't believe that the apparently contentless, impersonal information about who they contact and when is often actually more valuable to law enforcement than the content everyone tries so hard to protect. Using traffic data (such as the location data from mobile phones, or the pattern of calls or email correspondence) George Danezis figured that you could infer status, relationships, and much else. Computational sociology suggests that surveilling around six per cent of nodes can - if you pick the right six per cent - give you information about nearly 100 per cent of the entire network. Selection is the key, and traffic data makes it possible to pick that correct six per cent.

This is, of course, not how law enforcement has been working in the UK or elsewhere. Instead, they tend to take the Humphrey Appleby view that they must know everything, and so we get laws requiring data retention. If it doesn't work, we'd better do more of it. ®

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • UK watchdogs ask how they can better regulate algorithms
    We have bad news: you probably can't... but good luck anyway

    UK watchdogs under the banner of the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum (DRCF) have called for views on the benefits and risks of how sites and apps use algorithms.

    While "algorithm" can be defined as a strict set of rules to be followed by a computer in calculations, the term has become a boogeyman as lawmakers grapple with the revelation that they are involved in every digital service we use today.

    Whether that's which video to watch next on YouTube, which film you might enjoy on Netflix, who turns up in your Twitter feed, search autosuggestions, and what you might like to buy on Amazon – the algorithm governs them all and much more.

    Continue reading
  • UK criminal defense lawyer hadn't patched when ransomware hit
    Brit solicitor fined after admitting it took 5 months to install critical update

    Criminal defense law firm Tuckers Solicitors is facing a fine from the UK's data watchdog for failing to properly secure data that included information on case proceedings which was scooped up in a ransomware attack in 2020.

    The London-based business was handed a £98,000 penalty notice by the Information Commissioner's Office under Article 83 of the EU's General Data Protection Regulation 2018*.

    The breach was first noted by Tuckers on August 23 2020 when part of its IT system became unavailable. On closer inspection, resident techies found a note from the attackers confirming they had compromised part of the infrastructure. The Microsoft Exchange server was out of action and two days' worth of emails were lost, as detailed by the company blog at the time.

    Continue reading
  • Brit watchdog fines financial services biz £80k for text spam
    Company changed address to avoid probe after sending 378,553 messages

    Britain's data watchdog has issued an £80,000 penalty to a financial advisor that dispatched hundreds of thousands of unsolicited text messages during lockdown.

    H&L Business Consulting, based in Penrith, Cumbria, was found by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) to have sent 378,553 texts between January and June 2020, resulting in more than 300 complaints [PDF].

    The spam promoted the debt management scheme devised by UK government as the outbreak of the novel coronavirus morphed into a pandemic. This is despite the fact that H&L Business Consulting was unauthorized by the Financial Conduct Authority to sell regulated financial products or services.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022