By the people, for the people
After a year full of upheavals on political landscapes, politicians everywhere should take note. Will we see more enlightened and better informed decisions in future? Early indications from the technology sector do not inspire confidence.
In the UK, parliament has passed into law the new Digital Economy Bill and the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA), both of which have been described as examples of authoritarianism. The IPA now formalises indiscriminate mass surveillance with ISPs required to keep a log of all the top-level URLs visited by their customers for at least a year. Who is authorised to request access to that information and dip into your browsing history? The list includes all the major players you might expect such as GCHQ, police forces, military and intelligence services, the Serious Fraud Office, but also some that might surprise you such as the Food Standards Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, the Department of Transport, the Department for Work and Pensions, the NHS Business Services Authority, and the Gambling Commission.
The Digital Economy Bill also reintroduces, yet again, the concept of censorship of the internet and requires ISPs to block sites which present material which would fall foul of the British Board of Film Censors, and that sites serving up adult material to a UK audience must have age verification processes in place. It isn't at all clear how ISPs will manage this blocking list, or how an age verification requirement can be imposed on overseas porn sites, but those same problems were known twenty years ago, when politicians first started campaigning to censor the internet. You might also wonder why this censorship law is passed under the guise of a digital economy bill.
The IPA also introduces a requirement for ISPs and communications providers to let the government know in advance of any planned new products or services, to allow the government to demand technical changes to those systems. Essentially, the law now demands that security systems should have back doors by which the Authorities can decrypt our communications and monitor us. Again though, politicians have dictated a law which is probably unworkable. How can the UK government impose its will on overseas software writers, or corporations such as Google?
Lest you think this is purely a problem with the British government, similar arguments are carried out in America, at both state and federal level. A working group for Congress has been looking at encryption and this month concluded that truly secure encryption is vital to both privacy and national security, but at the same time it demands that encryption products should include back doors which can only be accessed by the proper authorities, such as the FBI.
South Carolina's law makers are considering an amendment to the Human Trafficking Act which would ban the sale of computers, tablets, and smartphones unless they contain a chip which would automatically block pornography. No such chip currently exists of course, and no-one is making one, but still the law makers mandate that this chip cannot be disabled by the user unless they pay a $20 release fee and can prove they are of adult age.
In Colorado, a court judgement has confirmed that online retailers are required to report details of online purchases made by Colorado citizens to the state government, including details of who you are and what you bought. This obligation also supposedly applies to out of state retailers selling to people in Colorado. Originally intended to assist with the collection of sales tax in the digital economy age, this detailed information coincidentally gives government officials access to data on the shopping habits of every individual in Colorado. Of course, good law abiding citizens who have done nothing wrong have nothing to fear, they will quickly tell you, because everyone knows slogans must be true, but profilers will probably take an unhealthy interest in people who buy sex toys, politically-themed books and movies, or a copy of the Koran. And in the current US political climate, that scenario is all too real.
30th December 2016
This article comes from the SKILLZONE email newsletter, published monthly since January 2008, and covering topics related to technology and the internet. All articles and artwork in the SKILLZONE newsletter are orignal content. If you would like to receive the newsletter direct to your inbox each month, please SUBSCRIBE here. It is free, and you don't get added to any other mailing lists. It uses best-practice confirmed opt-in only, and you may unsubscribe at any time.