netwars: Would you like spies with that?

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 14 June 2002

It's been a good week for snoops, says Wendy Grossman - you want a list? Here it is ...

Wendy M Grossman

It's been a good week for snoops, what with:

1) the announcement that some 24 new agencies (plus every local authority) are to have access to our stored communications data under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act;

2) the continued fooferaw over the European about-face on the provisions in the privacy directive that prohibited the blanket retention of that same communications data;

3) the likelihood that by December all of Europe will be living under Digital Millennium Copyright Act-like anti-circumvention legislation; and

4) the wonderful Etherpeg image Simon Bisson compiled at last Sunday's NTK and Mute-sponsored "Festival of Inappropriate Technology", aka Extreme Computing

To take these items one at a time, the list of agencies is shocking enough by itself. But a correspondent - doubtless one of those PITA citizens the government wishes would just stop reading Hansard - looked up exactly what "Any local authority within the meaning of section 1 of the Local Government Act 1999[2]" actually means.

Here it is: "(a) a county council, a district council, a London borough council, a parish council or a parish meeting of a parish which does not have a separate parish council ... " Read the rest for yourself . I'm thinking that's an awfully broad group of folks to be given access to my communications data. If you think so, too, get ye hence to Stand UK and fax your MP to say so. Being a furriner in these parts, I'm not exactly sure what a parish council is - it can't! actually be a church group, can it? - but it sure sounds like ultimately everyone in the country could get a court order to snoop on everyone else. Like twitching lace curtains isn't good enough for people any more?

The European thing is just sad and depressing. The one thing Europe really had going for it was the commitment to human rights, privacy among them, that maybe would rein in some of the worst law enforcement excesses of individual governments. Of course, it's still possible that someone will bring a case to the European Court of Human Rights - at great expense and after a long wait. During which time the machinery of dataveillance will already have been built. Again, the first thing to do, it seems to me, is to enter public comments on the draft code of practice - if and when the Home Office ever gets round to publishing it. I mean, here it is June, and they were telling Parliament back in, oh, February, that they were going to table the thing before the end of this Parliamentary session with three months of public consultation first. At this rate public consultation is going to be whittled down to about three days. Probably over a long weekend right after aliens land on Wimbledon's Centre Court and kidnap the men's finalists.

In the third case, there's positive news: today saw the launch of European Digital Rights , a campaign to keep the DMCA from coming here, although you'll find more information and resources at Campaign for Digital Rights UK . They are, of course, starting at love-40 (hey, it's tennis season), because Europe has already passed its Copyright Directive , but it's still worth wrangling over the clauses of the supporting national legislation. Technology can certainly make an end run around the law, but bad law that sticks tends to bruise people while it's still on the books. Or, if civil disobedience is more your style, buy a hacked DVD player while it's still legal. The fourth case both makes a serious point and is just a bit of silly fun. NTKfest (as I tend to call it) attracted a roomful of mostly black-clad people with the kind of sense of humor that twists everything in the known world into four-dimensional pretzels. I liked in particular the slogan for Idiotica -- "Never knowingly understood." Of course there was an 802.11b network. And of course everyone was frantically blogging and chatting from the floor. (For the fourth conference in a row, I managed to send Cory Doctorow, who blogs the meetings of the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group while they try to make copy protection a truth universally acknowledged, an instant message saying, "I'm sitting next to you again," and watch him jump a foot.)

Well, the thing about 802.11b networks is of course that they're inherently insecure. NTKfest of course had the obligatory guy who stands up at the end and shows you all the passwords he's sniffed from the ether. But Etherpeg sniffs images as they fly past and collages them. Very nice. Although I have to say, in a shocking lapse of standards, NO PORNOGRAPHY. Geeks just ain't what they used to be in the days when Robert Schifreen used to say, "Beware of geeks bearing GIFs."

Sometime during the attack-the-bloggers panel (intended to show that blogging was just so last-year), which included the Guardian's Neil McIntosh , I decided I was missing out. So I started the netwars blog, although I haven't managed to call it that. I'm hoping some of the readers who send in email, some of which is lengthy and thoughtful, will consider posting their comments there for public consumption as well as sending them to me personally.

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).