Surveillance, security and censorship
Padraig Reidy: Surveillance, security and censorship
19 Mar 13

The potential for communication brought about by the web is matched only by its potential as a surveillance tool. UN Rapporteur on free expression Frank La Rue recently announced that his next report will be on state surveillance and the web. In the UK, the government has vowed to reintroduce the Communications Data Bill, known commonly as the “snooper’s charter” which aims to give the authorities unprecedented powers to store, monitor and search private data. In Australia, the government has proposed similar powers and also suggested social networks should allow back-door surveillance of users.

It’s not just state gathering of data that worries people, of course. Many people object to the hoovering up and monetisation of data posted on public and private networks by the many private web companies whose services so many of us now use.

The right to privacy and the right to free expression often go hand in hand. Surveillance is bound to curtail what we say, and enable what we say to be used against us.

In Stockholm last week, Google brought together experts from politics, business, policing and civil liberties to discuss the complex intermingling of free speech, security and surveillance online.

Hosted in a former church overlooking Stockholm Harbour, the latest “Big Tent” event was kicked off with a discussion between Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Google’s Global Head of Free Expression Ross Lajeunesse.

Bildt raised a laugh while voicing confusion over the safety of “cloud computing”, asking “Where is the bloody cloud?”

But Lajeunesse insisted that cloud computing is the best way to guarantee safety from hacking and theft, adding that Google’s gmail is encrypted in an effort to protect users from surveillance.

Discussing China’s method’s of web censorship and surveillance (Read Index’s China correspondent here), Bildt put forward the interesting proposition that the authorities use of “50 cent party” a network of thousands of civilians paid to post pro government content in web conversations, was perhaps a sign the authorities had admitted that censorship had failed, as the government seemed to have conceded that you know had to argue your case rather than censor others.

Lajeunesse was hopeful for Chinese web users, simply saying that 700 milllion people who want access to information cannot be held back.

The reasoning behind state surveillance was discussed in a later panel. After Francesca Bosco, of the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute gave a frankly terrifying account of cyber crime and web security (in brief, there’s a lot of crime and no real security), Brian Donald of Europol discussed the need for surveillance, citing examples of tracking people engaged in the trade of images of child sexual abuse. He countered fears of dragnet surveillance expressed by Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Jacob Mchangama of Danish civil liberties group CEPOS, saying that he was in fact limited in his powers to fight crime by European data protection laws.

Galperin and Mchangama both also expressed concern over the policing and surveillance of not just of crime, but of speech online (a subject of considerable debate in the UK).

It seems like the back-and-forth on these issues will not be resolved any time soon. Security, surveillance and free speech have always been intertwined. But mass use of the web, as our lives move online, makes the debate on achieving a balance all the more urgent.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.