One of the problems with which digital rights advocacy groups struggle is the public’s attention span. Politics is a battle of attrition. Most people don’t have much time for it. The week before last saw the quasi-stillborn campaign to save the internet from dragnet surveillance (hashtag branded as is the fashion), #thedaywefightback. It was inspiring, with cryptoparties popping up here and there and petition banners appearing sporadically on the odd website (yours truly inclusive). Heart warming. Until reality took hold again the following day, that is.
The latest leaked spy Powerpoint presentation comes from UK’s GCHQ trove, and bares the sinister title: “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations.” Actually, that’s more of a subtitle. The presentation is called “Pychology A New Kind of SIGDEV.” We won’t go into the details, except to highlight three points:
- GCHQ Powerpoint slides are only slightly better designed than NSA ones;
- This document lists pretty common strategies (hardly “new” ones as advertised) to defame, discredit, libel and slander activist groups, and it’s observably not Defence Against the Terrorists™ as the public is often is assured. The document is largely aimed at local dissidents.
- It also provides some of the first actual evidence that there actually may exist effective political activist groups. You know you’re hitting a nerve when some government lackey fires up a Microsoft Office product to start a campaign against you.
You can’t fight back against this sort of thing in a day. Yes, worse things do still happen elsewhere, and in more obvious ways. With prime examples in North Korea, Syria and other Russian allies, you’d think we’d pause to take stalk about our own institutions and how resilient they might be. You might, but then you’d be ignoring vast amounts of knowledge about how humans behave. The only difference between oppression levels in different places during any given period is timing.
The research results are in; governments increase repression over time. They also often know how to game the internet to their advantage. Somehow the “internet shall set you free” meme survives. But each year, Freedom House reminds us that as technology reaches more people, governments crack down more, not less.
Again this year, ”even as countries such as Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States see fast growth in Internet access, Freedom House rates them as becoming less free online. … As the Internet looms larger, so does authoritarian political interference with it. ”
There’s a consensus around this one. Three years after Arab Spring, says IFEX, “many of the region’s internet users conversely find themselves in more restrictive online environments than in January 2011.” When oppression is used to hold onto power, giving it up requires a corollary loss of control. If you want a government to do that, then you need to look toward the Kiev approach. That’s not usually pretty or predictable.
But let’s briefly return to the day the day the internet went shadow boxing, No rant about the internet optimism is complete without an Evgeny Morozov reference. This one is courtesy of The Week: “…Morozov argues that Big Data collection encircles us like invisible barbed wire, subtly persuading us to accept intrusions in our lives by private and public actors, which could jeopardize the project of democratic government itself. Big Data and the institutions that profit from its collection can reshape our social contract without any political deliberation.”
So aiming at policy makers is largely a wasted effort. GCHQ has caused UK press freedom to decline and policy is behind that. Concurrently across the Atlantic, the U.S. dropped further in the index due to the NSA, also a creature of policy. It’s not impossible for either the U.S. or UK to improve in the Reporters Without Borders ranking: The nations with greater press freedoms simply need to get worse at a faster rate. Blame Finland for wrecking the bell curve.
CIMA calls the result “negative convergence.” I enjoy this phrase, but I see it as simple, predictable entropy. Put another way: You can’t separate the milk once it’s poured into the coffee. You have to dump the lot and start over. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have an ideal. #TheDayWe FightBack flogged a couple, and I’m all for both:
- Necessary and Proportionate: International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance 13 principles (international but with a US emphasis)
- Don’t Spy on Us 6 key principles (UK)
Both of these aim to codify ‘Surveillance minimisation.’ I think they’re grand, but the campaigns behind promoting them are somewhat misguided. #TheDayWeFightBack took place the year that UK’s premier civil liberties organisation, Liberty, turned 80 years old. We’d all be wise to look at it’s example of endurance. Technological methods of repression shouldn’t be seen as exceptional. Instead, we should look at them on a continuum of ongoing attempts. Liberty started after hunger marchers were attacked by Police while attempting to deliver a petition to parliament in 1932. Truncheons have changed little in that time. Technology just addresses the delivery method.