Features

net.wars: The haystack conundrum

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 24 November 2002


Early this week the news broke that the Home Office wants to create a giant database in which will be stored details of all communications sent in Britain.

Wendy M Grossman

In other words, instead of data retention, in which ISPs, telephone companies, and other service providers would hang onto communications data for a year or seven in case the Home Office wanted it, everything would stream to a Home Office data centre in real time. We'll call it data swallowing.

Those with long memories – who seem few and far between in the national media covering this sort of subject – will remember that in about 1999 or 2000 there was a similar rumour. In the resulting outraged media coverage it was more or less thoroughly denied and nothing had been heard of it since, though privacy advocates continued to suspect that somewhere in the back of a drawer the scheme lurked, dormant, like one of those just-add-water Martians you find in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. And now here it is again in another leak that the suspicious veteran watcher of Yes, Minister might think was an attempt to test public opinion. The fact that it's been mooted before makes it seem so much more likely that they're actually serious.

This proposal is not only expensive, complicated, slow, and controversial/ courageous (Yes, Minister's Fab Four deterrents), but risk-laden, badly conceived, disproportionate, and foolish.

Such a database will not catch terrorists, because given the volume of data involved trying to use it to spot any one would-be evil-doer will be the rough equivalent of searching for an iron filing in a haystack the size of a planet. It will, however, make it possible for anyone trawling the database to make any given individual's life thoroughly miserable. That's so disproportionate it's a divide-by-zero error.

The risks ought to be obvious: this is a government that can't keep track of all its copies of a database containing the personal details of 25 million households, which fit on a couple of CDs.

Devise all the rules and processes you want; the bigger the database the harder it will be to secure. Besides personal information, the giant communications database would include businesses' communication information, much of likely to be commercially sensitive. It's pretty good going to come up with a proposal that equally offends civil liberties activists and businesses.

In a short summary of the proposed legislation, we find this justification: "Unless the legislation is updated to reflect these changes, the ability of public authorities to carry out their crime prevention and public safety duties and to counter these threats will be undermined."

Sound familiar? It should. It's the exact same justification we heard in the late 1990s for requiring key escrow as part of the nascent Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. The idea there was that if the use of strong cryptography to protect communications became widespread law enforcement and security services would be unable to read the content of the messages and phone calls they intercepted. This argument was fiercely rejected at the time, and key escrow was eventually dropped in favor of requiring the subjects of investigation to hand over their keys under specified circumstances.

There is much, much less logic to claiming that police can't do their jobs without real-time copies of all communications. Here we have real analogies: postal mail, which has been with us since 1660. Do we require copies of all letters that pass through the post office to be deposited with the security services? Do we require the Royal Mail's automated sorting equipment to log all address data?

Sanity has never intervened in this government's plans to create more and more tools for surveillance. Take CCTV. Recent studies show that despite the millions of pounds spent on deploying thousands of cameras all over the UK, they don't cut crime, and, more important, the images help solve crime in only 3 percent of cases. But you know the response to this news will not be to remove the cameras or stop adding to their number.

No, the thinking will be like the scheme I once heard for selling harmless but ineffective alternative medical treatments, in which the answer to all outcomes is more treatment. (Patient gets better – treatment did it. Patient stays the same – treatment has halted the downward course of the disease. Patient gets worse – treatment came too late.)

This week at Computers, Freedom, and Privacy, I heard about the Electronic Privacy Information Center's work on fusion centers, relatively new US government efforts to mine many commercial and public sources of data. EPIC is trying to establish the role of federal agencies in funding and controlling these centers, but it's hard going.

What do these governments imagine they're going to be able to do with all this data? Is the fantasy that agents will be able to sit in a control room somewhere and survey it all on some kind of giant map on which criminals will pop up in red, ready to be caught? They had data before 9/11 and failed to collate and interpret it.

Iron filing; haystack; lack of a really good magnet.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).