a week in wireless


A Week In Wireless – Who watches the watchmen?

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The overarching theme of the modern tech industry is ubiquity – IoT, big data, the next billion, etc – but inevitably this brings with it concerns about the consequences of everyone being constantly connected and everything being ‘smart’.

Fear of technology is as old as technology itself, of course. Every time a tool is invented that performs a task better or more efficiently than a human being, a totally reasonable fear of obsolescence arises.

The term ‘Luddite’, which has come to describe all but the most compulsive early adopters of technology, originated in the English industrial revolution, when skilled textile workers in danger of losing their jobs to machines, quite understandably decided to destroy them. They became organised and were almost paramilitary in their attacks, culminating with the government making it a capital offense in the ‘Destruction of Stocking Frames, etc. Act 1812′.

Incidentally this era also gave rise to the term ‘sabotage’, which is thought to refer to the throwing of clogs (sabots) into the gears of machinery to damage them. Sabotage for a while was considered fair game in industrial disputes, although it evolved into strikes, working to rule, or other ways of withholding labour rather than just malicious lobbing of footware.

While fear of obsolescence remains today, the robotics era has given rise to a whole new anxiety of machines taking over, epitomised by movies such as Terminator and The Matrix. In these the machines are not only more physically able than us, they eventually learn to think for themselves and quickly conclude they’d rather do their own thing than the endless repetitive tasks their human creators set for them.

This is great fodder for conspiracy theorists and people who keep their own arsenals, but most of us have more immediate concerns and have put the spectre of self-aware, stroppy computers on the back-burner for now. What is of more immediate concern, however, is the extent to which technology is empowering others to poke their digital noses into our private business.

This week marked the two year anniversary of NSA (National Security Agency) contractor Edward Snowden leaking a bunch of information about the extent of mass surveillance by the NSA and other such organisations. Snowden himself reflected on how things have gone since then, concluding from the US court ruling that mass collection of phone record is illegal that his leak has had a positive effect. In the same newspaper that published Snowden’s piece, however, was a story based on the Snowden leaks that claimed the NSA has stepped up its surveillance of international internet traffic in a bid to thwart hackers.

Organisations such as the NSA will always look to increase their power and will often genuinely believe it’s for the greater good. Incidents such as the alleged hack into the US government’s HR systems would have been prevented if only they had more power, they will reason. And the USA Freedom Act, which was supposed to restrict the mass surveillance powers granted by the Patriot Act, seems perversely to require the continuation the very practices it was drafted to prevent.

The Telecoms.com inbox is not accustomed to receiving press releases from Amnesty International, but we made it onto their list for a joint announcement with Privacy International insisting governments have lost the debate over the legitimacy of mass surveillance, but warning they intend to persist with it regardless.

“It is disappointing that governments have not accepted that mass surveillance violates human rights,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali of Amnesty International. “While the passage of the USA Freedom Act shows that it is possible to roll back surveillance, the prospect of more intrusive spying powers in France and the UK shows that governments’ appetite for ever more information on our private lives is unsated.

“Tech companies must do much more to protect their users’ privacy and freedom of expression online. While some big firms like Apple and Google have started adopting stronger encryption standards, others are lagging behind. Tech companies need to introduce end-to-end encryption in their services by default, whenever possible.”

This debate will quite rightly continue, as should those concerning what companies like Google and Facebook do with the information they have about us, and more broadly about the status of the individual in a connected world where governments and corporations can track our every move, conversation and purchase. The question of who watches the watchmen has been around for at least 2,000 years and is one that will increasingly be asked of technology companies as well as governments.

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