Let me start this post – on the PRISM programme – by making a few things clear.
Firstly, I think the jihadist terrorist threat is real and dangerous and even potentially existential in nature: if these people had atomic weapons do you think they would hesitate to use them?
Secondly, I think the police and security services need to be able to do their job to deter and catch these people.
And, thirdly, I believe that all such actions need to be regulated by law and need to reflect the fundamental protections we expect.
What we now know is that a US based internet – which is what we have when we consider Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest – does not offer those of us who are not US citizens the guarantee that our communications are protected by law. No probable cause is needed to snoop at what we say and do – don’t take my word for it, listen to what the President of the United States has said.
He’s been very clear that the communications of non-US citizens have no legal protection. And I am sure he is right.
Most of us, perhaps until today, sought to resist the efforts to “internationalise” the Internet: why would we want Putin or Assad to have a say on internet regulation? We don’t, and we still don’t.
But equally the current situation is not acceptable either. For Europeans we must now expect and demand that the European Commission intervene swiftly and make it clear to the US internet giants operating on European soil that the current situation is unacceptable and equally make it clear to the US authorities that this is a matter of trade policy: after all communications could be being intercepted to steal trade secrets as much as anything else.
The aim should not be to ban the authorities’ access to communications but to ensure that European citizens who trade with US internet companies are offered the same legal protections as US citizens (and vice versa as far as Europe is concerned).
Email is no longer the killer application of the internet, certainly. Designed by scientists to send messages to other scientists and so built around the notion that all users were acting in good faith, it is weak and that is, no doubt, contributing to the rise of social media as an alternative means of communication.
But there is no reason why we should replace one broken security model – that of email – with another – a reliance on proprietary software (Facebook is proprietary after all).
Email will last because it is open. But maybe someone could and should write a better email.
I have to say, though, I am less than convinced. Say I create a new permanent magnet. How do other magnets know about it? In other words how does this “field” propagate? As it carries information it must surely propagate at the speed of light – but how? Is it a property of space-time itself?
In the aftermath of the riots a very dangerous, and very silly, idea, has been endorsed from all sorts of people who should (or perhaps should not) know better: namely that we should “switch off” parts of the internet in moments of such social crisis.
How this is to be achieved, short of a nuclear strike on US data centres and a new anti-satellite weapons system is not clear: in fact the obvious conclusion is that those who have dreamt up this policy either are short of clues as to how networks work, companies make money or people use the internet. Either that or they are proposing to shut down all wired and wireless communications and are willing to live with the leaks to those with access to satellites.
I don’t know. And the point is I don’t think they do either. But what I do know is that this all sounds deeply worrying. Or at least it would be if I really thought the government were likely to act on it.
It is, of course, the way of British policy makers to float radical ideas such as this and then back-off when they start to consider the practicalities – I do not think we are on the slippery slope to dictatorship, rather in the “Something Must Be Done” phase.