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Technology and tragedy: How the government uses terrorism to justify surveillance

Can we trust that new security measures are anti-terrorist and not anti-democracy?

The first headline seemed like a joke. “Google, the terrorists’ friend” shouted an all-caps Daily Mail headline, just two days after the Westminster terror attack that left five dead and 50 injured. The paper was arguing that Google’s search engine directed people to “terrorist manuals”, but the phrasing was so ridiculous that it seemed like satire. Yet it wasn’t. Nor was it alone. “What side are you on, WhatsApp?” yelled the Sun three days later, after it emerged that Khalid Masood, the Westminster attacker, was active on the messaging app moments before the massacre.

Faced with these headlines, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, decided to make some of her own. Speaking on the The Andrew Marr Show four days after the attack, Rudd condemned WhatsApp’s encryption practices – known as end-to-end encryption (E2EE) – as “completely unacceptable”. Because of E2EE, which allows only the sender and recipient of a message to see its contents, it is impossible to know what Masood wrote in his last moments. Justifying her demand that the government should be allowed access to all of its citizen’s communications, Rudd said: “There should be no place for terrorists to hide.”

Leaving aside the ins and keep-outs of E2EE, it cannot be denied that Rudd is arguing for a surveillance state. Or rather, she is arguing for complete compliance with the British surveillance state that already exists. After the Investigatory Powers Act was passed last year, we now live in a country where 48 government bodies – including the Food Standards Agency and Department for Work and Pensions – can view a record of the websites you’ve visited in the past year. If the Digital Economy Bill is passed without amendments later in the year, the government will require your identity in order for you to access online pornography. All our surveillance state needs now is for technology companies to comply.

This explains the sudden moral panic around tech and terrorism. This March, YouTube came under fire for failing to remove extremist videos, and the Daily Mail came dangerously close to arguing that our free access to information should be curbed in its headline condemning Google. Now, because of Masood’s unread WhatsApp message, the government is twisting a recent and raw tragedy for its own ends.

What’s worse, it knows how to manipulate us into going along with it. “We need to remove everybody’s curtains so we can look through the terrorists’ windows,” it says. When you argue back, security and privacy are presented as an incompatible binary. “Well, you have nothing to hide, do you? Don’t you want to stop terrorists?”

Though a simplistic curtain analogy arguably suffices, it is more important than ever to know the facts of modern technology. Rudd embarrassed herself on Marr by claiming that experts who “understand the necessary hashtags” could prevent the spread of terrorism online, proving that she had not been briefed on the reality of the situation. So: what is it?

At present, E2EE ensures that no one can access your WhatsApp messages except you and those you communicate with. Rudd wants the government to have access to these messages through a “back door” in the encryption. Yet this would leave messages vulnerable to hackers and cannot be selectively applied, so it would affect us all. When Rudd says that there should be nowhere for terrorists to hide, she is also saying that there should be nowhere for you to hide, either.

But you have nothing to hide, right? The beauty of the moral panic is that it makes its opponents immediately complicit. Why would you care if Theresa May checks your chat to find out what time you’re meeting at Wetherspoons? Why not let her, if it will
stop terrorists?

You should care precisely because these proposed measures are disproportionate. Though one death from terrorism is one death too many, only 1.4 deaths a year are caused by terrorism in the UK. You are more likely to be killed by a cow or a vending machine. Why, then, should every British citizen’s right to privacy be curtailed? Why should we spend billions of pounds a year on counterterrorism measures? Why not ban vending machines?

Beyond this, a back door into WhatsApp would also be ineffective. Does Rudd imagine terrorists won’t simply use another messaging app with E2EE? If she bans E2EE outright, does she think the terrorists won’t figure out how to encrypt their own messages? Even a ten-year-old can make up a secret language when she doesn’t want her teacher to read the notes she’s passing in class.

Can we even trust that these measures are anti-terrorist and not anti-democracy? In the US, the FBI recently let a child pornographer go free because it did not want to disclose to a court the surveillance methods used to catch him. When we use moral issues such as terrorism and child pornography to push through extreme laws, we are clouded to the real reasons why surveillance is installed. If the child pornographer has gone free, what was the reason for the surveillance state?

There is also an element of the government shifting the blame. It has historically been the justice system’s responsibility to curtail hate speech. Why should it now be up to YouTube to take it down? Isn’t that like blaming the street corner for the madman who stands on it to shout? Why is the government condemning WhatsApp when it failed to put Masood on an anti-terror watch list? Even if it had access to all WhatsApp messages, it would not have checked Masood’s prior to the attack.

The government’s unprecedented spying isn’t happening because it is needed now more than ever – there were more deaths from terrorism in the 1980s. It is happening simply because it is now technologically possible. So what stopped the release of George Orwell’s telescreen when 1984 rolled around? It wasn’t our democratic sensibilities. It was the limits of our technology. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

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Man makes $4bn in two days explaining Facebook to old people

Mark Zuckerberg's supposed blockbuster grilling by Congress was the bust it was always going to be, and he went home victorious largely by default.

On Tuesday a crowd gathered on social media for what promised to be a generation-defining moment, like the moon landing, or the OJ bronco chase. There was an air of tension. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was about to be dragged before the public and made to answer the Questions Of The People.

Many tuned in expecting a spectacle: namely, that of a socially awkward – albeit spectatularly wealthy – geek (like the one portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network) get absolutely tarred and feathered. Twitter filled with jokes as the crowd grew impatient. Some of them were even good.

They underestimated Zuckerberg. Expectations for his performance before a series of committees of both houses of the US congress started out lower than subterranean. Yet even at the start, the 33-year-old billionaire did look absolutely terrified. Blinking vacantly in the strobe-flashes of the cameras, his expression while he sat listening to the senators’ seemingly-endless introductory remarks was not so much lost as “404 not found”.

But over the course of an often-agonising ten total hours of testimony before a joint sitting of the Senate commerce, science, and transportation committee, and the judiciary committee on Tuesday, and the House energy and commerce committee on Wednesday, Zuckerberg managed to come out not just unscathed but victorious.

In recent years, the Facebook CEO has made an effort to learn to be a more disciplined public speaker and a more responsive interviewee. On top of that, in preparation for this appearance Zuckerberg hired a crack team of outside consultants and lawyers to coach him, and even held mock hearings to hone his answers and manner, the New York Times reported. His investment paid dividends: Zuckerberg spoke with a glossy confidence and gave an effective and assured – though somewhat robotic – performance which left many of the lawmakers visibly charmed. He largely avoided answering questions he didn’t want to, and no lawmaker was able to press him to the point where he became visibly physically uncomfortable, as he has in the past.

It was possible to watch the Zuckerberg charm offensive play out in real time, not just on social media but on the financial markets. As soon as he began to talk, Facebook stock began to rise, and apart from a bit of a dip on Wednesday morning it pretty much never stopped. On Tuesday Zuckerberg’s confidence before the Senate committee gave Facebook shares their best single day of trading in two years, closing 4.5 per cent up. By the time Zuckerberg finished answering questions on Wednesday afternoon the stock price increase meant his own personal net worth had gone up by just under $4bn.

Far from the meltdown that many tuned in expecting to see, viewers were treated to Zuckerberg dealing patiently and even-temperedly with questions that occasionally betrayed a lack of even a basic conception of how the internet works, let alone Facebook. Some of his interrogators, especially in the Senate hearing on Tuesday, barely seemed to understand their own prepared questions even as they read them aloud.

This allowed Zuckerberg to get off considerably more lightly than he appears to have been expecting. A tantalising glimpse into the hearing we could have had was given to us when Zuckerberg accidentally left his sheet of notes open on the table when he left the hearing-room for a break. The notes, which were photographed, show that he was prepared for broader existential questions on subjects like workplace diversity and European privacy regulation which sadly, in the end, went largely unasked.

Instead, some lawmakers used their time to throw dozens of redundant questions to which we already knew the answers. Zuckerberg at times looked like he was struggling to suppress his obvious delight at answering questions which contained fundamental errors, causing howls of frustration on Twitter from the watching tech press, who understood the opportunity missed. Other times, lawmakers threw softballs, leading to such scintillating exchanges as the following, between Zuckerberg and Dan Sullivan, a Republican senator from Alaska:

SULLIVAN: Mr Zuckerberg, quite a story, right? Dorm room to the global behemoth that you guys are. Only in America, would you agree with that?

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, mostly in America.

SULLIVAN: You couldn't – you couldn't do this in China, right? Or, what you did in 10 years.

ZUCKERBERG: Well – well, Senator, there are – there are some very strong Chinese Internet companies.

SULLIVAN: Right, but you're supposed to answer “yes” to this question.

The main problem was the format didn't lend itself to a genuine search for insight. That's because any time it got half-way interesting, such as in an early exchange with South Dakota senator John Thune on the technical and linguistic difficulties involved in teaching AI bots how to accurately spot hate-speech, the dialogue would be abruptly cut off as each successive legislator ran up against their four-minute time limit.

Some legislators didn’t even bother trying to ask key questions about privacy and data protection, but instead decided to fawn or grandstand. Ted Cruz took an audaciously pompous line of questioning about how he felt Facebook was biased against the political right – without mentioning, of course that he actually ranked among Cambridge Analytica’s political clients.

The lack of coordination and preparation among his interlocutors allowed Zuckerberg time and again to cast Facebook as a company exists only to make people's lives better now and forever, rather than as a for-profit surveillance organisation. Time was wasted explaining over and over that, no, Facebook does not literally “sell data”, though John Cornyn, a senator from Texas, did pull off probably Tuesday night’s only true zinger with his muttered riposte: “well, you clearly rent it”.

There were some exceptions. California Democratic senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, almost drew blood with a searing, sustained enquiry into whether there had been, when the company learned that user data had been shared with Cambridge Analytica, “a discussion that resulted in a decision not to inform your users”. In one of the few moments of the entire proceeding in which Zuckerberg found himself on the back foot, Harris pressed home the question a brutal seven times before her allotted four minutes were up.

His appearance before the House committee on Wednesday was testier in general but not much more enlightening. Anna Eshoo, a Democratic representative from California, scolded Zuckerberg for the opacity of the site’s terms and conditions, telling him: “you have to make it transparent, clear, in pedestrian language, just once, ‘This is what we will do with your data. Do you want this to happen, or not?’” Others pressed Zuckerberg for action controlling the sale of opioids on the Facebook platform. Zuckerberg nodded, smiled, and made the correct engaging noises at the appropriate times.

Despite his polish, the moments when Zuckerberg came closest to slipping up his mistakes were largely own goals rather than the result of incisive questioning. One particularly embarassing slip-up came during the Senate hearing when he accidentally answered “yes” to the question of whether the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had served Facebook with subpoenas. Scrambling, he hastily muddied the waters a few moments later with: “actually, let me clarify that. I actually am not aware of a subpoena. I believe that there may be, but I know we're working with them.”

Mostly, though, Zuckerberg was poised enough to avoid any question he didn’t want to answer either by promising to “have people look into it and get back to you” or with a robotically careful line like “I am not specifically aware of that.” If faced with a tough question, he could simply run down the clock for four minutes until the questioner's time ran out. And the more he talked, the more Facebook stock soared.

In the end, the most interesting part of the hearing wasn’t what was said in the room itself but in watching it all play out on social media, where commentators from the two different worlds of technology and politics collided at the same real-time event. The conversation was split right down the middle into two distinct groups: those mainly frustrated and confused by Zuckerberg’s jargon-laden technobabble, and those mainly frustrated and confused by the lawmakers’ inability to understand the basic working principles of Facebook or even the internet – though mostly they agreed with each other on their distaste for Ted Cruz.

If nothing else, it was illuminating to see just how wide the gulf between those two worlds was.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.