Electoral panic

The Guardian reports that Theresa May is threatening to rip up human rights laws in order to try and gain control of the security agenda in the run-up to the general election.

Here’s the giveaway:

Despite having previously said she believed the police and security services had the resources they needed to deal with terrorism, she went on to announce details of a proposed crackdown on terrorism at a rally of Conservative activists in Slough.

Theresa May does not believe what she is saying. She is panicking about her shrinking poll lead and making up policy on the hoof.

This is how bad laws are made.

Unplugging

Yesterday was Data Protection Day, which seeks to raise awareness and promote privacy and data protection best practices. Data protection and online privacy are issues that I have tended to think about in the abstract. While I am aware that my online data is exposed, I have a hard time motivating myself to do anything serious about it.

However, with the current global direction of travel, I started to think about how much of my data is going through US servers and the obvious first point of concern is Google, particularly Gmail.

Although I have a few email accounts, for the past few years I have been using Gmail as my primary email — and as my email client. The Accounts and Import page make it very easy to set up Gmail to send and receive from all of my email accounts, allowing me to easily synchronise everything across everything. It’s damnably convenient, but a complete disaster from a privacy point of view.

So today I have unplugged every other email account from Gmail. I have also installed and configured Geary on my desktop and started playing around with the default email client on my phone.

It’s not as convenient as letting Google do all the synchronisation for me, but the effort is minimal and it does mean that all of my email is no longer being pushed through the same server.

I haven’t decided whether to keep my Gmail account. It’s handy to have, but not irreplaceable. I shall watch how my email traffic changes over time and decide later. I shall also have to look into calendaring services.

But first, I shall see about scraping the Google Apps off my phone. This should be reasonably straightforward — if all else fails I just need to do a factory reset. But I must remember to take a backup first.

The Real Name Fallacy

The Coral Project (via) effectively debunks the myth that requiring people to use their real names on the Internet makes them behave better.

The bit that really leapt out at me was this:

Designers need to acknowledge that design cannot solve harassment and other social problems on its own. Preventing problems and protecting victims is much harder without the help of platforms, designers, and their data science teams. Yes, some design features do expose people to greater risks, and some kinds of nudges can work when social norms line up. But social change at any scale takes people, and we need to apply the similar depth of thought and resources to social norms as we do to design.

The point about social problems, such as harassment, is that they are social problems and, as such, need to be addressed by society as a whole. Looking for a technical fix for social problems is, at best, doomed to failure and may well end up doing more harm than good.

Facebook: Spying with impunity again

Back in November, a Belgian court ruled that Facebook should stop tracking Belgians who are not signed up to the site or pay a daily penalty of €250,000. This ruling, unfortunately, was overruled on appeal at the start of this month. Not, it should be noted, because Facebook is justified in tracking people who are not logged in or have never sighed up to their site, but because:

Belgian courts don’t have international jurisdiction over Facebook Ireland, where the data concerning Europe is processed.

The issue here is one of jurisdiction, not principle. The data protection and privacy laws invoked in this case exist at the EU level, they have not been challenged and the only question is who gets to enforce them. Since Facebook’s European operations are based in Dublin, that would be the Irish.

A little poking around online led me to europe-v-facebook.org:

Are EU Data Protection Laws enforceable in Practice? This may be the main question that europe-v-facebook.org is now about. The right to data protection is a fundamental right in the European Union, but at the same time very little companies respect it. Facebook is just one of many that have a bad reputation when it comes to the handling of users’ data.

So the question arises if users are just too lazy to do something about it, or if the laws are in practice unenforceable?

We unintentionally landed in the middle of a big experiment after filing 22 complaints against Facebook in Ireland, because of breaches of the most basic privacy rules. We happened to look at Facebook for a number of reasons, but the results are very likely exemplary for a whole industry.

You can follow our journey and the under “Legal Procedure“.

While it is clear by now, that no normal citizen is able to follow through with such a proceeding, we are still working to get our final decision today. We want to know if our fundamental rights are respected and enforced against tech giants like Facebook, or if our rights are only existing on the paper.

You can support them at crowd4privacy.org.

Gollum experts to decide if Erdogan was insulted

This rather glorious headline comes from EUObserver

A Turkish judge has ordered an “expert investigation” into the Lord of the Rings character Gollum to determine whether comparing President Erdogan to the ring-fancier is an insult. The judge made the request in a case against Bilgin Ciftci, a physician, who faces two years prison for comparing the two.

The case centres on a picture posted in October by Ciftci which compared Erdogan to Gollum in a series of poses. Following this, he lost his job and now (according to Time) faces up to two jears in jail for insulting the president.

Neither the prosecutor nor the judge presiding over the case has seen The Lord of the Rings film adaption series in its entirety, so the court has brought in two academics, two behavioral scientists and a media expert to determine if Cifti did indeed seek to insult the President.

The crucial point here, though, is that insulting a president — or any other politician — should not be a crime in the first place. Erdogan may well find the picture offensive but a country that aspires to join the EU needs to become a little less thin-skinned about their institutions and recognise that criticism — however it is expressed — should not be a crime.

And here’s the picture that caused all the trouble.

Gollum vs Erdogan
Gollum vs Erdogan

Paris: Some Links

charliehebdo1217
They have the guns.
Fuck them, we have the champagne!
Over the past week the press has — not surprisingly — been full of the attacks on Paris, the aftermath and where we go from here. Plenty of opinions have been offered and I really don’t have anything to add. So, instead, here are a few links to articles that particularly struck me.

Starting with Charlie Hebdo, whose absolutely brilliant cover can be seen to the left of this post. It turns out that they also have an English translation of their current edition’s Riss Editorial (click quickly as the layout of their website suggests that this will be replaced when the next print edition is published).

After the horror of the attacks, another ordeal is to be expected. The harassment of analyses, explanations, theories. And it started on Friday night, live on television. So-called specialists pretended that the attacks were the consequences of the French bombings of Daesh’s oil facilities. The hostages of the Bataclan had yet to be released and the same guilty speeches were already delivered. We had been attacked because we had done something wrong. As was the case with the Mahomet cartoons that supposedly spurred everything that went on afterwards, the victims were made responsible. The French would be guilty of taking a stand, of being committed. Of simply existing. In reality, for these criminals, there is no beginning and no end to the responsibility of France. Human rights, free speech, secularism, for them, these values are enough to legitimate their crimes. We are being given “explanations” that sound like “reasons” and end up becoming “justifications”. It is too early yet, but in a few days, when the emotion calms down, the professional scavengers, who always find excuses for the killers, will start to roam around the dead. It is always the same process after an attack –– horror, emotion, acceptance, justification.

During these tragic days, lots of words were uttered. Except one, “religion”. Religion has become embarrassing. Nobody dares say the word but everybody knows that religion was what motivated the murderers, not pseudo geopolitical issues. Even if there are thousands ways to believe and worship and even though you can obviously be a believer and a democrat, have faith and still respect the diversity of opinions, we also know that religion can be turned into a weapon. The other word that is so hard to pronounce is “Islam”. For the past twenty years, Islam has turned into a battlefield on which radicals vowed to exterminate non-believers and to submit moderates by force. French Muslims must feel ill at ease when they see killings committed in the name of their religion while suspicion is creeping around them. And since they cannot expect any support from the Muslim religious authorities in France, who have always been useless, French Muslims must fend for themselves. Threatened to be sidelined by the rest of French society or to be swept over by fundamentalism.

The only ones who have an interest in seeing the French people clash are the terrorists. It is what they are craving for, to see hatred take over the French the same way it took over their brains. Terrorists always seek to draw the rest of the world into their own violence because it is their language and in this field, they will always be stronger than we are. But to avoid the trap of division does not mean we should renounce the right to criticise religion simply because this right can sometimes be seen as irritating. Among all the fundamental rights essential to our lives, this freedom is also what the killers attempted to destroy on Friday night.

In The Guardian, Agnès Poirier strikes a similar note:

France and its capital city seem to have been a particular focus of their abomination. Other European cities have been hit – Madrid, London and Brussels, for instance. But the viciousness those terrorists reserve for France is notable. For obvious reasons: France and Paris are the cradle of the Enlightenment, the birthplace of secularism and the separation between the State and the Church, a beacon of freedom of thought, scepticism and powerful satire. It is also an active player in fighting Islamists in the world, for example in Mali.

Many people will ask questions about failures in intelligence gathering and sharing, about prevention of such acts and they will be right. However, when the danger is so diffuse, no democracy that values freedom of speech and movement is completely safe.

In Politico, Carrie Budoff Brown makes a point that bears repeating:

There was, in fact, a kind of syllogism of terror at work here: a movement that begins by targeting Jews and writers will end by targeting the West at large. Those who extenuated those earlier attacks by pointing to Israeli policies or cartoonists’ provocations may now realize that terrorism is not a form of critique, but a form of attack. Religious pluralism and free speech are the glories of liberalism, and so they are what the enemies of liberalism attack first.

Sadly, I suspect we will continue to see more cases of the ideologically blinded insisting that everything that happens everywhere can only ever be explained n terms of UK/US/EU foreign policy — as if such a coherent thing actually existed.

Bruce Schneier also weighs in with a few links of his own.

Bruce Schneier:

But our job is to remain steadfast in the face of terror, to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to not panic every time two Muslims stand together checking their watches. There are approximately 1 billion Muslims in the world, a large percentage of them not Arab, and about 320 million Arabs in the Middle East, the overwhelming majority of them not terrorists. Our job is to think critically and rationally, and to ignore the cacophony of other interests trying to use terrorism to advance political careers or increase a television show’s viewership.

The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn’t make us any safer.

Paul Krugman:

So what can we say about how to respond to terrorism? Before the atrocities in Paris, the West’s general response involved a mix of policing, precaution, and military action. All involved difficult tradeoffs: surveillance versus privacy, protection versus freedom of movement, denying terrorists safe havens versus the costs and dangers of waging war abroad. And it was always obvious that sometimes a terrorist attack would slip through.

Paris may have changed that calculus a bit, especially when it comes to Europe’s handling of refugees, an agonizing issue that has now gotten even more fraught. And there will have to be a post-mortem on why such an elaborate plot wasn’t spotted. But do you remember all the pronouncements that 9/11 would change everything? Well, it didn’t — and neither will this atrocity.

Again, the goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of. And the most important thing our societies can do in response is to refuse to give in to fear.

And an article from Cracked which was written after the attack in January in which Islamic militants massacred an office full of comedians.

The final word goes to those comedians. If you don’t speak French (and even if you do), the text on the cover reads “They have the guns. Fuck them, we have the champagne!”

Goodwin’s Law and Social Justice Warriors

In a footnote to a post, Martín Ferrari makes the following observation:

At this point, using the term SJW in a discussion should equate to a Godwin, and mean that you lost the argument.

Pedantry aside1, Ferrari makes a good point. Increasingly, the accusation that someone is, or is behaving like, a “Social Justice Warrior” is bandied about online by reactionaries seeking to shut down discussions rather than deal with the points being made.

People who try to close down arguments in this way can, and should, be dismissed as the irrelevancies that they are.

1 Godwin’s Law merely states that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” The idea that making a Nazi comparison means that you lost the argument is a corollary.

The CompuServe of Things

Phil Windley’s The CompuServe of Things is well worth a read.

On the Net today we face a choice between freedom and captivity, independence and dependence. How we build the Internet of Things has far-reaching consequences for the humans who will use—or be used by—it. Will we push forward, connecting things using forests of silos that are reminiscent the online services of the 1980’s, or will we learn the lessons of the Internet and build a true Internet of Things?

While I know that there are people building open and decentralised tools and protocols, we are rushing headlong into a new feudalism in which people decide which supplier to lock themselve into and then lock themselves in. We are moving, worryingly rapidly, towards a situation in which only a few geeks and nerds enjoy any sort of digital freedom at all.

The vast majority of people are far too willing to accept that all they need to do is decide whether they want Apple of Google to completely control their environment.

(Via BoingBoing)

If at first you don’t succeed, fail spectacularly

This made me laugh:

The deeply serious spooks tried to spare the sensibilities of their employees by employing automatic image porn filters. Unfortunately naive porn filters block images on the basis of how much of the picture consists of flesh tones. In the case of video conference calls, this turns out to be too much: they were getting lots of false positives (images classified as pornographic that were not in fact so), and as the whole point of the program was to trial face recognition software in order to detect Bad People Discussing Terrorism On The Internet, this was a bit of a problem.

Mass data collection doesn’t work, but this is the funniest example of failure to date.

Vote for your digital rights

WePromise.eu (via) is asking EU voters and candidates to make a promise to vote in the EU elections taking place between 22nd and 25th May.

The upcoming election is your chance to promote a positive agenda for digital rights in the European Parliament for the next five years! You can promise to vote – and to cast this vote in favour of digital rights-friendly candidates.

This will give you the opportunity to maximise the number of members of the Parliament defending your digital rights.

Come back on the day before the election for a full list of the candidates in your area that have signed the Charter.

Go read the charter. It’s all pretty straightforward stuff, and if you agree with it, click the button, promise to vote and then cast your vote for a candidate that commits to respecting it – and your digital rights.