Saturday, June 08, 2019

Zimmermans' relevance for discussions on human rights and ICT-security surveillance

If we look at economic and social risks of new technologies, outsiders will often immediately fall into the trap of considering this to be about the illegal use of peer-2-peer networks, applications such as bitcoin etc, for socially unwanted activities or even criminal activities. From there on it is a small step to forbid such activity, regulate it, overregulate it. But we should take a wider perspective here.

For me, Phil Zimmerman was the person who made a lasting impact, when he explained, somewhere in the late 1990s, during a speech at a digital money conference his considerations behind developing Pretty Good Privacy (see also his explainer himself: Why I Wrote PGP). His argument was mainly that the new digital society has to be built in such a way that it guarantees a situation in which a people are still able to communicate and act in way which is not invaded or controlled by government tools/techniques. Whereas the old analogue world would allow the people smart analogue ways of creating their own spaces for communicating and fooling government with fake analogue id's and such, it would be much harder to do this in a digital world. Hence the need for a peer-2-peer simple mechanism as Pretty Good Privacy.

Zimmerman outlined one very significant theme during his speech. He noted that the assumption of a continuous benevolent government is not realistic. Governments come and go, some may be more democratic than others and even strong democracies may turn into dictatorships, depending on the circumstances. It is therefore important to design society, governments and the technologies that we use to manage society, guarantee that a balance exists between the powers of government and those of the public. The public, the people should always be allowed to remain digitally out of sight of government. Such a robust structure would be important to ensure a fair treatment of the people over a long period of time.

It is clear that this requirement: to allow for and to actually create areas where the government cannot see what happens means that those areas are scary for regulators. Will they facilitate crime by doing so? Perhaps. Will they allow for huge pockets of creativity? Certainly ! But it will be the strong governments that are able to allow this. They will act from a position of strength and not be afraid. The weak governments, or the scary governments, or the ill-intending governments will seek to monitor everything and control all digital activities. This will certainly fail. But while doing so, they may instil tools that are very dangerous tools in the hand of governments when they turn from benevolent to evil. It will tilt the balance towards a situation that ill-intending governments can no longer be overturned by a social revolution.

There is no need for governments to be afraid of technological progress in the hands of the people. It is a good thing, to be cherished and to be allowed. The simple labelling of such activity as possibly criminal is the wrong frame. The reverse is also wrong: regulators with good intentions are not by definition tools in the hands of dictators. The right frame is: dictators exist just as criminals. Society should ensure that neither of these can become too powerful due to technological of legal measures and it is for this reason that we need to balance our human rights to privacy with the goal to prevent criminality.

Finding this balance is not easy but over the last weeks we have witnessed too many occasions where governments seem to go to far. German police wanting access to home devices. The FATF-ruleon surveillance for virtual assets. Ghost accounts into Whatsapp. Giving your social media handles when entering the US. We should not let ourselves be caught in this wrong direction over intrusive government behaviour.

There is a very legitimate reason to develop and create new technologies that safeguard the public and it is a pity that many policy makers in the world may not have been hearing the clear message that Phil Zimmerman sent them. They really could do with open their minds more. So for them I’m embedding this video. Just to be able to learn from history.