Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Month: November 2016

Creeping Authoritarianism: The Investigatory Powers Act

The most important thing about this post is that I rewrote it multiple times and considered not posting it at all, because I was concerned about how it might be perceived and whether its recommendations might have ramifications in the future. Once you read it, that thought alone should be terrifying.

With the Labour party in disarray and the population distracted by Brexit, the Investigatory Powers Act has now passed both houses. Media coverage has been inexplicably scant. The Act permits a wide range of snooping and hacking by the security services, allowing unprecedented surveillance of citizens for a democratic country. Theresa May pushed this legislation (dubbed the “Snoopers’ Charter”) as Home Secretary, so it is little surprise that she has forged ahead despite opposition from groups like Liberty and warnings from a number of commentators including Edward Snowden.

I hope that by now most people reading this will have rejected the idea that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. It is worth revisiting Glen Greenwald’s powerful TED Talk on the subject. This is not paranoia about some perceived theoretical risk. The Snowden revelations demonstrated that the intelligence agencies will take advantage of any information gathering they can get away with, whilst both the Government and the police have demonstrated repeatedly that supposedly anti-terror laws will actually be used whenever convenient. This is why the lack of judicial oversight over access to browsing history should cause serious concern. Most importantly, even if you do trust the current Government, you still should be protecting your privacy. Once a more authoritarian regime takes power, it is too late to claw back what they already hold.

The danger is that authoritarianism occurs in a gradual shift that is easy to overlook as it takes incremental steps. Take, for example, the current Digital Economy Bill which seeks to censor videos that contain a swathe of consensual but non-conventional sex acts. It is entirely unclear why the Government should have any say in such things and it stigmatises private activities enjoyed by a minority. Those of us unaffected by this change should be fighting against it, because it suggests that in future such marginalisation of other minority groups is acceptable based on an arbitrary sense of what is “normal” or “decent”. Now couple this with a regime that also has access to your entire browsing history.

Security

A second major issue with the Investigatory Powers Act is the requirement that companies remove user encryption whenever “practicable”. Many major tech companies have responded robustly about the security implications of creating backdoors in their software, which serve to weaken security for everyone against any malicious attackers. However, the arguments over what is or is not “practicable” for companies to implement will occur in private — without public scrutiny — because the warrants demanding data will invariably contain a gagging order.

Remember also that data leaks by Government bodies are commonplace. The Information Commissioner’s Office lists 54 enforcement actions in just the past two years. Allowing the collection of data also allows the risk of it being released more widely, particularly in light of the Digital Economy Bill’s proposals for data sharing between Government bodies without proper safeguards.

You can petition the Government to repeal the Investigatory Powers Act.

You can write to your MP to prevent the Digital Economy Bill being rushed through.

How do you protect yourself in the meantime? Everyone should be using a Virtual Private Network (or VPN). Here’s a friendly beginner’s guide, but broadly a VPN involves making an encrypted connection to a server which handles all of your online requests. That way no one else, like your Internet Service Provider or others on a public wifi hotspot, can track or eavesdrop on what you are doing. You are still trusting the VPN provider, but this gives much greater control than than trusting one of a few local ISPs, all of which will be subject to requirements imposed by the Investigatory Powers Act. The best way to ensure your privacy is to use a VPN that does not log your traffic so that, even if ordered to, it cannot provide your web history to anyone else. There are a number of different companies offering VPN services relatively cheaply. I recommend NordVPN, given the privacy features outlined above coupled with easy-to-use clients for Windows, OSX, iOS and Android, so little technical knowledge is required.

If you know that you will never, ever have anything to hide from anyone else at all, then you have nothing to fear. And a level of clairvoyance that I sincerely envy.

Love Trumps Hate

Dear Liberal America,

You’ve woken up with one hell of a post-election hangover and piecing the night together is beginning to feel pretty horrific. There is a lot to process. You feel like a stranger in your own country. You feel worried about the future. You can’t work out whether you feel sad or angry or disappointed in your fellow citizens. I know this because we have just gone through the same thing following the shock result of our own Brexit referendum. As a result, several friends have asked me how on earth they deal with this, when it seems like there is no way to move forward. Here are some tips from our experience.

Love Trumps Hate

Do not go to sleep and assume it will be better in the morning. I promise it will be a little more bearable the second morning, but it is going to suck for weeks.

Surround yourself with like-minded friends right now. Alcohol helps. Drink together. Cry together. And laugh together.

Laughter is important. In the darkest of times, we humans are capable of finding humour. The alternative is despair and that leads nowhere good.

Understand why people were willing to vote this way. This may be the most important thing. The easy response is to dismiss them all as bigots or racists or misogynists. But we are talking about millions of people. It’s complex and a lot has led to this. People have felt disenfranchised and hopeless (just as you do right now) for decades. We need to address this to prevent this from happening again.

People will tell you to move on, you lost. This time they are wrong. Understand that this was not just another election where half the country feels upset. This was something much starker, which reveals far more about the depth of division within your society.

Be ready because this result will leave a minority of bigots and racists and misogynists feeling vindicated. They will spew hateful bile in the next few days that you never expected. But it will be finite. They are not going to win and we are still moving in the other direction. If you are lucky enough to be white or a man or heterosexual, do not allow this behaviour to go unchecked. Remind every minority that, whatever Trump may say, your society does not accept hatred as normal. They remain welcome. They remain one of you.

Seek unity. It will seem hard right now but, like it or not, you are all in this together for the next four years. Hillary suggested you give Trump a chance to lead and she is right. Division only makes you weaker.

Above all, remember that one man and one election does not define your country or our society. You all do. It is a struggle that goes on.

This is all I can offer. I hope it helps a little, that it ignites a spark of hope. And, if it does, share that hope with others.

With commiserations,

Your Transatlantic Cousins

The FACT Charter

According to numerous publications on both sides of the Atlantic, we live in a “post-fact” society. The creep of cognitive bias has reached such heights that the truth is no longer powerful enough to strike down a false argument. It is evident in Brexit, where politicians campaigned on the basis of outright lies about welfare tourism, healthcare funding and more. The furore over Thursday’s High Court decision on the requirement for Parliamentary approval before invoking Article 50 demonstrates that, for all the principled talk of restoring Parliamentary sovereignty, what campaigners apparently meant was unchecked Government power.

It is perhaps more evident in the support for Donald Trump, who is comfortable denying that he has said things when a cursory Google search will provide video evidence. This American Life aired a troubling show recently demonstrating just how entrenched political belief has become — it is no longer simply a viewpoint but an identity.

Can facts actually survive this onslaught or are they now irrelevant? Much of the shift came from us and particularly our use of social media. Our friendship groups mean our interactions tend to exist in an echo chamber in which we are exposed only to similar viewpoints to our own. This is part of the reason that I think the Brexit vote came as such a shock to many. This is coupled with the easy carelessness with which information is now shared, meaning that misinformation spreads just as rapidly. We complain about newspapers hiding their retractions after lazy journalism but individuals can be just as bad. All this is to say that we can change a lot by changing how we approach social media.

20161104-brain

I am proposing a short recommended checklist for posting articles that I am going to call The FACT Charter because I am not feeling particularly creative. However, it does sport a helpful (one might say contrived) mnemonic.

  1. Fact-check before sharing or reposting
  2. Assess critically for bias
  3. Challenge your friends
  4. Think out loud

Fact-check before sharing or reposting

This is really the crux, as it becomes ever-easier to share articles in just one or two clicks. It is equally easy to view it as someone else’s article and abdicate blame for any errors but, like it or not, by sharing that article you are essentially becoming a publisher, widening the circulation of that story. You do not have to start from scratch: see whether the source material is a reputable news outlet or some guy’s blog; check that a study’s conclusion actually says what the writer claims. If it turns out to be untrue, that’s okay: you’ve still gained another data point.

The argument that it would be too time-consuming to check the source is essentially saying that your time is worth more than that of your friends reading it. If you don’t have time, wait. At the very least, point out clearly that you’ve not checked the underlying information.

Assess critically for bias

There is no such thing as neutral journalism but bias varies dramatically. Often a strong opinion piece is warranted and worth sharing. But equally it can be lazily convenient to share a partisan article that aligns with our beliefs but does not really provide a particularly nuanced or balanced view. Look for something more neutral and — if you feel less inclined to post that version — assess why you are sharing it. A separate recommendation is regularly to read a news source with a conflicting viewpoint to your own, to ensure yours is being challenged and not simply reinforced in isolation.

Challenge your friends

Our friends keep us honest. Not every post has to turn into an argument, of course, but if friends post stories that seem suspect to you, ask them for the evidence behind it. Ignoring it is a doing them a disservice.

Think out loud

Provide your own commentary when sharing articles, highlighting what you have taken away. It forces you to engage with the content rather than just a knee-jerk share because of a headline seeking a viral audience. It may be the best way to reduce the effectiveness of click-bait headlines (which incidentally, will only go away if we make a concerted effort not to click on them whenever we spot them). If nothing else, your commentary will encourage a dialogue which is always more interesting.

Let’s make facts great again!

"You shouldn't trust the storyteller; only trust the story."

(CC) BY-NC 2005-2017 Priyan Meewella

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