Monday, 10 June 2013

Ethical Spies: Useful as a Chocolate Fireguard?

Thanks to the emerging scandal that is PRISMGate, today the Foreign Sectretary has gone on record and announced that our spies are totally ethical, working within a plethora of legality and staying within the law.

Now it seems to me absurd that (a) the Foreign Secretary has been forced to issue such a statement and more importantly (b) our spies are required to work within the framework of the law.

Spies are probably the only branch of the government that I would say its a requirement to occasionally cross the line and work illegally. I mean, if you ask someone to spy on their own government, isn't that acting contrary to that countries laws? If you order a terrorist to be "taken out" is that not murder? If you steal secrets from a government or a foreign company, is that not theft?

To be brutally honest I don't think the Foreign Secretary's statement can actually hold water, as somewhere at some time someone in the employment of our security services must have crossed the line into illegality. If they haven't, we have the weakest and most ineffective spies in the world, hamstrung as they are by our ethical legal framework.

Of course as I mentioned this is all spawned by the revelations regarding America's PRISM project, which attempts to capture the records of various online and telephonic connections. Its been established for a long time that social networks are key to understanding the nature of threats to national security. For instance suspect A talks to B who regularly converses with C, D and E, who then talk to other groups, ad infinitum. The thing is, the information helps to discover new threats that may not have been apparent before.

The real problem is that in order to work out these networks in a timely manner, ALL connections have to be recorded and stored so that previous connections can be tacked back once a new connection is made. SO that makes ALL OF US suspects, because we all have to be monitored.

That's right: our governments consider all of us suspects. Basically the game has changed, no longer are we innocent until proven guilty, we are now all suspected of being guilty until proven guilty. 

This all reminds me of something that happened almost two decades ago: I was working for an American Company specialising in Computer Telephony, including speech and voice recognition. We were having problems with recognising UK accents and I was looking up some specs when I stumbled upon an intriguing article about a large scale speech recognition system. Now known to be part of Echelon, a system that can identify key words and phrases in online and voice communications.

The current line is that PRISM is nothing to worry about because it only records call connections, not the actual calls themselves, but the logical conclusion is that PRISM roots out the call connections and Echelon monitors connections once identified by  PRISM. All automatically and encompasing literally hundreds of thousands of connections globally.

Its not just communications that are under surveillance. Our movements are too. In the UK and other countries, the movement of vehilces is tracked by a national ANPR network (the little cameras that now stand at the borders of most small towns and cities).  In recent murder cases I've noted that very quickly the Police can establish the movements of suspect vehicles, supposed thanks to witnesses. Nope, its down to the national ANPR network that tracks the comings and goings of vehicles at the main arteries into and our of towns and cites and also at major road junctions.

Couple all of this with current advancements in face recognition technology, its not the realm of the tinfoil-hat-wearer  to understand that if necessary the authorities already have the power to know where you are, all the time, who you talk to and what you talk to them about.
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