2006-06-17

The perils of surveillance

Below is my translation of the text "The perils of surveillance" ("Risker med övervakning") from the Swedish website Stoppa Storebror (Stop Big Brother). run by master of engineering, IT strategist and author Pär Ström. The text, available in Swedish at the website can be freely used, if stoppa-storebror.se is stated as the source. I, who have made the translation, honour this license, and add to it - this translation can be used freely, if stoppa-storebror.se is stated as source. I would also be greatful if you add this webste as source for the translation. All additions of links to the text are mine and not included in the original. Furthermore, I have edited out links in the orginial text, because they linked to material in Swedish only.

Digital surveillance can sometimes make crimefighting and cheating easier. At the same time new threats arises - against the individual's integrity and freedom, against their happiness and success in life, against legal security and democracy. Sometimes, digital surveillance can even introduce new physical threats against people, and thus be counterproductive. These are the most important threats:

1. Information in the wrong hands.

Digital information have an inherent tendency to spread. The personell controlling the systems can be curious or greedy, hackers can break into the systems and bugs can make the protection of the databse non-functional. All this happens again and again.

Thus exists a real risk that gathered information comes into the wrong hands - information that can expose sensitive things such as a person's social network, interests, political opinions, health, habits, personal relations, travels, purchases et cetera. This can be used, for example, to attempt blackmailing.

Sometimes the perils connected to information in the wrong hands can be very far-reaching for the individual. A man in Oslo, Norway, pursued and threatened his ex-wife, who were afraid of him and kept herself hidden. The man then called the company taking care of the city's congestion charges and queried her license number, whereupon he received a list on exactly when and where she passed with her car. The electronic footprints gave her away. It could have ended in tragedy.

2. Innocently suspected

Electronic footprints can easily give a midleading picture, which can result in innocent people being falsely accused of crime, cheating or other irregularities. In the US a man spent five months in custody, suspected of arson, because the police demanded a printout of his purchasing list from the supermarket and found that he had bought material of the same kind that had initiated the fire. The man was released when another person reported himself to the police and admitted the crime.

That far-reaching police powers can have serious concequences for innocent citizens was illustrated with all clearity when british police in July 2005 shot dead a brazilian electrian in the London Underground, believing he was a terrorist. He had been in a building that was concidered conncted to people suspected of the failed attacked on July 21, and he was said to be carrying a thick jacket (information that later came under scrutiny), and he was running towards an exiting train. These circumstancial evidence put together resulted in seven rounds of fire in the head and one in the shoulder (another four bullets missed).

A Swedish example of how very lose suspicions resulted in blacklisting, where the black list later were spread (according to the principle 'digilat information has wings'): In June 2005 it was discovered that the telecom company Ericsson had blacklisted coworkers that had behaved unappropriately or was suspected of have unappropriate opinions or be unrealiable. The list eventually ended up on the company intranet.

Even worse example can be found if one looks back in time. During several decades the secret police were registering opinions of swedes on very loose grounds. It was well enough to be a subscriber of the wrong newspaper. The registered people were - without knowing why - denied jobs that were security classed within the military, radio or television, some parts of the industry, and other places. In 1990 more than 400 000 jobs were security classed in Sweden. The initial report of the State Board of Registers showed that at least 1001 individuals had had their careers ruined or delayed or been thrown into unemploment because they had been registered on opinion basis without any good reason. The figure is probably significantly higher.

3. Legal security made hollow

There is a tendency to let electronic footprints base black listings, that are informal and outside of the established routines of the judicial system, and because of this there are no possibilities for the individual to defend themselves or appeal - since there are no formal charges. Because of this people can end up in a legal grey zone impossible to get out of - they are not guilty but nor completely innocent. They can be the new lower class of tomorrow - "the marked".

In the US reports have already started circulating in the press about people that has a name resembling that of a known terrorist. These completely normal people are put under what they feel is harassments going on for several hours every time they try to use an air plane. This harassment includes questioning, violating cavity searches, confiscated passports and things like that. Their attempts to be excluded from this list are unsuccessfull. They simply cannot be exculpated, since there is no formal charges to be exculpated from.

In Sweden, the security police long-standing opinion listing of 100 000 swedes were a form of informal black-listing.

4. Purpose glide

Experience proves that when information has been gathered, or when a technical control system has been built, the probabilities are very high that the information gathered, or the system used, will start being used for other purposes than the one originally intended. This is called a purpose glide.

- In England, for example, the congestion charges around London were soon used as a survelliance tool by the police (the registration plate were automatically read and matched against a database).

- In Sweden we can study the purpose glide that has taken place in the database over blood samples from newly born. Orignially it was promised that it would only be used for medical research, but it has now begun to be used in crime investigations against the person who have left the sample.

- Another example are the log files from phone calls, e-mails and web surfing that tele operators and internet service providers needed to bill their customers correctly. These files have now become central tools for the police in various crime investigations.

5. The threat to anonymity in the press

For misconditions in society to be exposed it is very important that any person can safely tip off journalists without risk of exposure. The secrecy related to the journalist's sources is therefor stated by Swedish law. The storage of electronic footprints from electronic communication poses a threat of this protection being hollowed out, and the most extreme effect is a threat to democracy. For exmaple it has been noticed that in the US anyone can buy information about which calls bave been dialed from any phone.

6. Adaptability hollows out democracy

If people are getting used to the fact that their electronic footprints from everyday life are gathered, store and used for controls we can expect an adapted behaviour. To avoid potential problems in the future, perhaps people avoid buying certain books, visiting certain websites, mailing certain people, travelling to certain countries et cetera. This limits freedom, shrinks the frame of reference and prevents information gathering, and therefor it is a threat to democracy. And furthermore it limits the quality of life significally for people.

7. Feeling of unease


The subjective feeling that it is unpleasant to be monitored should not be ignored. To be without external control of ones private sphere is a human right that the individual should not be forced to claim. Concider the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (article 8, point 1), where it is said: 'Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.'

8. How can the information be used in the future?

Digital information, once saved, have a tendency to stick and never be deleted. How can electronic footprints and other detailed information about people's lives becomes utilized in the future? It is not self-evident that Sweden will always remain a democracy. If data bases had existed in the 1940's, Adolf Hitler and the nazis would have been able to find their opponents with much more ease, both in Germany and in the occupied countries.

9. The balance of power between state and individual is displaced


Information is power. Information about a person's location, travels, friends, purchases and other things that can be derived from eletronic footprints displaces power from people to the part that has access to this information. Thus, digital surveillance displaces the sensitive balance of power between state and individual to benefit the state. This means in reality that the politicians strengthens their own power at the expence of the voters.

Reponsible decision-makers often answers criticisms against survelliance measures and data gathering with the statement that "of course there must be guarantees against misuse". The sad thing is that such guarantees can not be made. All databases leak, and as long as there are going to be people, there are going to be abuse of information.

Sticky wings. Many tend to forget two fundamental and very important qualities of digital information. It has "wings" - which is to say it has a gargantual ability to spread. It is also "sticky" - which means that it is very hard erase permanently and totally. These two qualities are decisive for the fantastic advantages of information technology - but they also provide the hazards.

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