Thursday, 23 July 2009

They're Coming To Get You

What started out as just interested people wanting the right to share music downloads has become Sweden's fastest growing political party. Perhaps only in Sweden can such a progressive and philanthropic movement enjoy such support.

The Pirate Party started off in life as embracing what Sweden's liberal culture call 'Allemansratten' which means 'everyman's right'. It seemed a whacky start as the founder of the Party, Rick Falkvinge, openly explained that it was his intention to put the record industry out of business. It seems like cutting your nose off to spite your face as with no record industry there is no music to pass around but the Pirates believe that will take care of itself. One great side benefit would at least see the end of such people as Simon Cowell and his various Factors so maybe this is not such a bad ideal. However, the Pirate Party took a lurch to the centre of politics at the recent European Elections when it suddenly found a cause upon which to offer more mature opinions.

At the heart of the matter was Sweden's law called FRA, named after their equivalent of the UK's GCHQ. This law was passed last year and it gives the FRA total freedom to monitor all international phone calls, emails and internet traffic. It constantly scans for over 250,000 trigger words and phrases in cross-border e-traffic. These words and phrases are ones chosen by the agency as may be needing further investigation.

Ostensibly, the law was passed in the name of homeland security against terrorism. However, it flies in the face of Sweden's culture of freedom of speech and expression, something we all associate with that country. It helps that Sweden and the surrounding Nordic countries are some of the most developed technological countries in the internet age - companies like Nokia, Ericsson and Skype originated here and they lead the way in terms of numbers of home internet connections and broadband speeds, both landlines and mobile.

The counter-argument could be that this means that the Nordics was a fertile area for terrorists to hang out and do their planning at least.

The Shape of Things To Come

We may think that monitoring all e-traffic and scanning for as many as 250,000 triggers is a bit excessive and impinges on privacy. We may also think that at least it is Sweden doing it and not us. But readers of this blog will know that a consultative document on Britain's strategy along the exact same lines lies at the Government's feet as we read this. It is only a matter of time - very short time - before exactly the same law will be implemented in the UK.

In the European Elections this year, Swedes of all ages and persuasions voted against the law by voting for the Pirate's Party stance on the FRA law. It had given itself a cause to break free of it's hippy-type image of wanting free music and films for everyone (Swedes downloaded an estimated 15 million films last year - illegally). It resulted in a representative of the Party being elected to the European Parliament and it is widely believed that the Party will gain considerable ground at next year's Swedish Elections.

We can wipe the smile off our faces. Already we have 'Little Hitlers' in agencies and councils watching us with security cameras and often tapping our phones just to try to catch mums trying to get their kids into the wrong school or if we are putting the wrong thing in designated bins. Cameras in city centres, originally put up to safeguard us against terrorism and violence, now watch for those who over stay their parking meter. When the law is passed to allow monitoring of e-traffic, you can bet your shirt that security will be the reason for the intrusion into our privacy but just around the corner will be the extraneous gains in knowledge about us all - much of which can be used to design new taxes as well as ensure we are paying all we should now. And much more.

I used to think that if you have nothing to hide, why worry. Then I think that would I like the Government to know what friends I keep, what hobbies I have, how much travel I do and much more? What has it to do with them if I am not a terrorist? The answer is that it will be golden information for them in working out how to shape taxes to maximise revenues in the future on a local and national basis. If we do not believe it, how do we think people assess how a tax can impact us and what returns the HMRC will make on it now? Information is vital.

It is a short step to using a city centre camera to watch parked cars rather than criminals or terrorists killing people. After all there is no money in preventing crime. Realistically, we had all the CCTV footage of the 7/7 bombers making their way from Luton to the Underground and that did nothing but to help us identify them after the event. Such cameras are deployed to catch fare dodgers which in London Transport's mind is a far more heinous crime. The point is that you can monitor all the e-traffic and cameras you like but if you do not have the capability to act on the information it produces then it will not help, but that the information is useful to someone who can use it for a profit.

I find the introduction of FRA law in Sweden a precursor to similar laws in many other countries including the UK. It is a sad demise for the internet but some would say it had it coming. It started on the premise of freedom of information and was created by people with no money on the basis of honour and trust to pass information along. Today we see the consequences of those lofty ideals - terrorists use it to communicate freely and manage their money flow while paedophiles use it to communicate and refresh their network, and much more. The fact is that you could argue we had this coming. Our abuse of the internet has led to monitoring and potentially much more strict rules for the future. The vast information gathering by Government agencies in the near future will be the launchpad for many more restrictions to be placed on the web. And some would argue that is no bad thing.

What you can be sure of is that the waves of restrictions and laws associated with how we surf the web and what we do and say on there will be preceded by laws crafted in the name of preventing terrorism. The FRA law in Sweden is such a precursor for the future of the web.

They are certainly coming to get you. Quite who 'They' will be remains to be seen.

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