Mr Snowden’s legacy


Without getting into the rights and wrongs of Edward Snowden’s actions or indeed the actions of the NSA and GCHQ in relation to mass online surveillance, the fallout has been most instructive for those of us who occupy the child protection space in the internet forest. I definitely feel I have been put in my place. I must try harder to get things in proportion. I won’t be so uppity in future. Honest Guv.

Billions on subversion

We now know (or think we know) the US Government spent billions of dollars on a campaign to subvert the cryptographic protocols on which much of the internet depends. I wonder how many billions they have spent trying to find a way to rid the internet of the mountain of child abuse images which continues to circulate on it?

Rapid action is possible

We now also know that when the internet industry sees its vital interests threatened or they see an opportunity to advance their cause they are capable of coming together rapidly, mobilising on a substantial and sustained scale. For example in today’s press we are told no fewer than fifteen CEOs or senior executives of internet companies – including the heads of Google and Apple – met yesterday with President Obama and Vice President Biden in the White House. This followed a decision of a judge who suggested the NSA’s large scale collection of information about the phone conversations of US Citizens is probably unconstitutional.

If only online child protection could attract such focus (honourable mentions and exceptions here for Google and Microsoft for their recently announced sterling efforts).

And your point?

What were the CEOs complaining about to the President and the Veep? Apparently they are anxious that the Snowden revelations could

undermine trust in the internet

Hmmm. Interesting idea. It would be good to deconstruct that at some stage, talk around it a bit. And just how much trust is out there to be undermined?

Irony on stilts

But for the moment let’s reflect on the irony. Some of the companies around that well polished table in 1600, Pennsylvania Avenue NW, have taken the notion of intrusiveness and the harvesting of personal data beyond Olympian heights and into orbit around some of the furthermost exoplanets in the known universe. They did it in the name of commerce but I’m not sure that gives them a right to claim any higher ground that might be going around, although I doubt there is any. Maybe they are worried the NSA is planning to open up rival online services?

I can see the advertising slogan now

Join FedWeb

No need to worry about unauthorised snooping. On FedWeb everything goes straight through to Langley. We cut out the middleman and save your tax dollars.

However, my main point here is a different one. The US Courts and Congress plainly are going to have to roll their sleeves up and arrive at a new settlement in respect of data collection by state agencies. We will have to do the same in the UK.  The commercial wing of the internet certainly has some good points to make in that debate. There are sound business reasons for wanting to fix things. The status quo is not acceptable.

Two cultures are alive and well and one of them is definitely kicking

Yet when you look at some of the wider arguments that have developed around Snowden we are reminded once again of a phenomenon I thought had been on the wane of late: the modern version of two cultures. Reverting to my inter-galactic metaphor: there are those who inhabit Planet Cyber and there are those of us who live on Planet Earth. The guys on Cyber strongly resent the rude intrusion of Earthlings on to their territory. You think I jest or exaggerate? Read this taken straight from the pages of  a recent edition of The Guardian

By subverting the internet at every level…..the NSA has undermined a fundamental social contract…..

This is not the internet the world needs, or the internet its creators envisioned. We need to take it back. And by we, I mean the engineering community…..there are several things engineers can – and should – do.

Don’t hold back Bruce, say what you mean

The author of the piece is one Bruce Schneier. I’ve never met the guy but at least two people whose opinions I value give him big licks. How depressing is that? Schneier has called the geeks to arms through one of their key vehicles the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). I doubt they will succeed because most of the companies who employ its members will not want to put themselves so offside or want to throw in their lot with individuals who hold such bizarre views.

I understand the anger but the arrogance will not help us find a way forward. Calmer counsels need to prevail otherwise I fear that part of what Bruce Schneier and his friends will end up doing is making it even harder for law enforcement agencies to do their proper job and even easier for serious bad guys to do theirs. What a triumph that would be!

You choose: the guys we don’t vote for or the ones we do

Thus the High Priesthood of Planet Cyber asserts their right to determine how the world is run and this trumps that of any democratic government or collection of governments. No one needs to be reminded about the fallibility of politicians. Winston Churchill probably got it right when he observed that

democracy is the worst possible form of government, except for all the others that have have been tried

Yet the simple truth is when engineers build things they intervene in everybody’s world – the one we all share together. Their actions have big and small p political and social consequences. They cannot then deliberately blind themselves to the results of their actions and their creations and still expect to be taken seriously anywhere outside the confines of the Senior Common Room, a bar, a blog or a newspaper’s columns.