24 July 2014

Resisting Surveillance on a Unprecedented Scale I

Netzpolitik.org is the leading site covering digital rights in German. It played a key role in helping to stop ACTA last year, and recently has been much occupied with the revelations about NSA spying, and its implications. As part of that, it has put together a book/ebook (in German) as a first attempt to explore the post-Snowden world we now inhabit. I've contributed a new essay, entitled "Resisting Surveillance on a Unprecedented Scale", which is my own attempt to sum up what happened, and to look forward to what our response should be. I'll be publishing it here, split up into three parts, over the next few days.

Despite being a journalist who has been writing about the Internet for 20 years, and a Briton who has lived under the unblinking eye of millions of CCTV cameras for nearly as long, I am nonetheless surprised by the revelations of Edward Snowden. I have always had a pretty cynical view of governments and their instruments of power such as the police and secret services; I have always tried to assume the worst when it comes to surveillance and the assaults on my privacy. But I never guessed that the US and UK governments, aided and abetted to varying degrees by other countries, could be conducting what amounts to total, global surveillance of the kind revealed by Snowden's leaked documents.

I don't think I'm alone in this. Even though some people are now claiming this level of surveillance was "obvious", and "well-known" within the industry, that's not my impression. Judging by the similarly shocked and outraged comments from many defenders of civil liberties and computer experts, particularly in the field of security, they, like me, never imagined that things were quite this bad. That raises an obvious question: how did it happen?

Related to that outrage in circles that concern themselves with these issues, is something else that needs explaining: the widespread lack of outrage among ordinary citizens. To be sure, some countries are better than others in understanding the implications of what has been revealed to us by Snowden (and some are worse - the UK in particular). But given the magnitude and thoroughgoing nature of the spying that is being conducted on our online activities, the response around the world has been curiously muted. We need to understand why, otherwise the task of rolling back at least some of the excesses will be rendered even more difficult.

The final question that urgently requires thought is what can, in fact, be done? Since the level of public concern is relatively low, even in those countries that are traditionally sensitive about privacy issues - Germany, for example - what are the alternatives to stricter government controls, which seem unlikely to be forthcoming?

Although there was a Utopian naivety in the mid-1990s about what the Internet might bring about, it has been clear for a while that the Internet has its dark side, and could be used to make people less, not more, free. This has prompted work to move from a completely open network, with information sent unencrypted, to one where Web connections using the HTTPS technology shield private information from prying eyes. It's remarkable that it has only been in recent years that the pressure to move to HTTPS by default has grown strong.

That's perhaps a hint of how the current situation of total surveillance has arisen. Although many people knew that unencrypted data could be intercepted, there was a general feeling that it wouldn't be possible to find the interesting streams amongst the huge and growing volume flooding every second of the day through the series of digital tubes that make up the Internet.

But that overlooked one crucial factor: Moore's Law, and its equivalents for storage and connectivity. Crudely stated, this asserts that the cost of a given computational capability will halve every 18 months or so. Put another way, for a given expenditure, the available computing power doubles every year and half. And it's important to remember that this is geometric growth: after ten years, Moore's Law predicts computing power increases by a factor of around 25 for a given cost.

Now add in the fact that the secret services are one of the least constrained when it comes to spending money on the latest and fastest equipment, since the argument can always be made that the extra power will be vitally important in getting information that could save lives and so on. One of the first and most extraordinary revelations conveyed from Snowden by the Guardian gave an insight into how that extra and constantly increasing computing power is being applied, in what was called the Tempora programme:

By the summer of 2011, GCHQ had probes attached to more than 200 internet links, each carrying data at 10 gigabits a second. "This is a massive amount of data!" as one internal slideshow put it. That summer, it brought NSA analysts into the Bude trials. In the autumn of 2011, it launched Tempora as a mainstream programme, shared with the Americans.

The intercept probes on the transatlantic cables gave GCHQ access to its special source exploitation. Tempora allowed the agency to set up internet buffers so it could not simply watch the data live but also store it - for three days in the case of content and 30 days for metadata.

As that indicates, two years ago the UK's GCHQ was pulling in data at the rate of 2 terabits a second: by now it is certain to be far higher than that. Thanks to massive storage capabilities, GCHQ could hold the complete Internet flow for three days, and its metadata for 30 days.

There is one very simple reason why GCHQ is doing this: because at some point it realised it could, not just practically, because of Moore's Law, but also legally. The UK legislation that oversees this activity - the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) - was passed in 2000, and drawn up based on the experience of the late 1990s. It was meant to regulate one-off interception of individuals, and most of it is about carrying out surveillance of telephones and the postal system. In other words, it was designed for an analogue world. The scale of the digital surveillance now taking place is so far beyond what was possible ten years ago, that RIPA's framing of the law - never mind its powers - are obsolete, and GCHQ is essentially able to operate without either legal or technical constraints.

(In tomorrow's instalment: why isn't the public up in arms over this?)

No comments: