Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Freedom to be Invisible

Chatting yesterday with a small group of computer science lecturers from the University here, I asked what they thought the future held for wifi; would there soon be free (to use) wifi provided by councils in all urban areas, or would the private open networks of cafés, bars, hotels, rail networks and community buildings expand to achieve more or less the same function? Maybe not, they said, at least not in the foreseeable future, as for councils to provide the service directly would be against competition laws. The law can be changed, I said, and if they are paying a service provider who makes a good offer there is not necessarily any unfair competition going on. So will the advance of technological and social pressure overcome this very minor legal quibble?

Ah, they said (well, one of them did and the rest seemed to think it was a good point), there are other difficulties. If people are connecting and disconnecting constantly, randomly, and anonymously 'we' won't know who is accessing what sites, and who is talking to whom about what. Paedophiles and terrorists, you know.*

These people were all genuinely intelligent, and none was rabidly leftwing (I think they all tended to the left, but no more). Yet they were unable to appreciate the following argument. Due to the circumstances I was only able to make the bare bones of it; here I flesh it out:

People who live in any country that considers itself to be more or less free, which includes my past and present homes, expect as an absolute minimum to be able to walk the streets and talk to anyone we want without our every step and every word being logged by some equivalent of the Stasi, the KGB, or the CDR*, and without having to justify or even be punished for where we go or what we say unless we commit a real, actual crime, the sort of crime that human beings, rather than bureaucrats, politicians and dictators, think are crimes.

Why then does it seem normal to most people that we should be unable to make a phone call, visit a website, make a Google search or chat to someone else by email, forum, Skype, Facebook, Tuenti, Habbo or whatever may be our medium of choice without having the fact recorded for future use by our masters. The fact that it is technical possible doesn't make it desirable, or morally acceptable. Denying us the use of something until it is technically possible to record everything we do with it is not just anti-libertarian, it is utterly reprehensible.

In Spain it is no longer possible to have a phone number that is not registered to an identified name and address. I don't know if this is true in Britain yet, and I think in the US you this freedom does still exist, but clearly even democracies are keen to prevent us talking to each other without government knowledge. In Cuba, of course, using a mobile phone or accessing the internet is illegal, for reasons of paranoia and a love of repression state security, so they save themselves the trouble of tracking everyone.

There is no intrinsic difference between being unable to walk down a street or talk to a friend without anyone knowing about it and making a phone call or writing an email with no one looking over your shoulder, but even people who should understand this have difficulty getting the point.

*Apparently they're everywhere, yet I've never met one of either. In twenty years of teaching I have never knowingly encountered a paedophile teacher or parent or a child who has been a victim of one. A bit odd, really. I'm not saying they don't exist, of course, but are they really prevalent enough to make the actions taken to stop them, which restrict all our freedoms, worthwhile? Ditto terrorists?

**The CDR is Fidel Castro's secret police, set up shortly after his coup to persecute anyone who might threaten his stranglehold on wealth and power safeguard the ideal of the revolution. They still opertae with virtual impunity and they're a thoroughly nasty bunch

***I'm a hedgehog, not the Devil's Kitchen. Utterly reprehensible is very strong language for us.


Brett Hetherington said...

I have just read a couple of of your posts and really enjoyed your insight into a few things that are often neglected.

Relevant to the concept of invisibility, you might be interested to know that I came across your blog in a completely random way (while flitting around under the location of Spain) at a site called "We Feel Fine." []

This site is not as full of wankery as it might sound. To me, it's interesting to see who else writes in the English language here in Spain.

CIngram said...

Hello there. Thanks for dropping by. Glad you found something to interest you. I've had a look at the wefeelfine site and am now beginning to wonder if the white powder I put on my lunchtime chicken was not salt after all.

By the way, your QSL card (see here) is in the e-post.