RUDDY HELL!

I’m sure we all recall the unique interpretation of the Joint Enterprise law as practiced by teachers back in the day. One pupil has broken one of the school rules, but won’t confess to it, despite Sir or Miss’s entreaties for him or her to come forward. The teacher’s solution is to keep the entire class entombed in the classroom until the guilty pupil speaks up; the knowledge that others are aware of the criminal’s identity is paramount, but the teacher expecting these others to break the code against grassing is futile. Nobody will admit anything, so every child is punished for one child’s misdemeanours because there’s always somebody spoiling it for everyone else.

If we take this collective memory from ‘the happiest days of our lives’ and use it as a metaphor for the Government’s attitude towards online security, then Amber Rudd is the teacher and we – an estimated 4 billion global users – are the class. A few of us have been very naughty indeed, posting terrorist propaganda and Hate Speech (surely that’s for the Wiltshire Constabulary to deal with?); and Mrs Rudd’s solution is to apply the tried and tested school version of Joint Enterprise as a means of dealing with it. According to the Home Secretary, ‘Real People’ don’t want secure encryption on their messaging mediums. As she declared in the Telegraph – ‘Who uses WhatsApp because it is end-to-end encrypted, rather than because it is an incredibly user-friendly and cheap way of staying in touch with friends and family?’

On the eve of her visit to Silicon Valley, the Home Secretary has been making it clear her predecessor in the post taught her well when it comes to the subject of cyber civil liberties. In her Telegraph piece, she referred more than once to that exalted demographic, ‘Real People’, a new twist perhaps on David Cameron’s more favoured ‘Hard-Working People’. One presumes these are the same Real People who reside in Nick Clegg’s Alarm Clock Britain; and in Alarm Clock Britain as perceived by Amber Rudd, those of us who don’t mind those nice chaps at GCHQ acting as internet traffic cops are Real People; those of us who do are obviously hate-fuelled ISIS sympathisers who have something to hide.

Rudd intends to challenge the most popular online services such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as Microsoft and Google, to up their game in ‘removing extremist content’. However, one man’s extremist content is another man’s democratic expression of freedom. Outside of gruesome ritual beheadings, the definition of extremist content can vary depending on our individual perspective. Naked breasts are viewed by some as a feminist statement; to others, they’re just a pair of knockers to drool over; and to others, they’re virtually pornographic and should never be seen in public. Context is vital, of course, but tits are tits. You either have a problem with them being exposed or you don’t. Twitter and Facebook often do and censure the mammary offenders whilst being a little more lenient on things most of us would regard as not quite so benign.

Rudd evidently doesn’t have the same kind of problem with the business practices of Google and Facebook as she does with some of their content. Were her justification of the nosey parker principle to be applied to some of the internet’s multi-billion dollar corporations, we’d all be able to see how they masterfully evade the paying of taxes and maybe we could have a crack at it too once we’re shown the way it works. The Government she’ll be representing in San Francisco at the inaugural gathering of ‘The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism’ also doesn’t have a problem with selling arms to the very country from which the current nihilistic strand of Islam originated as it bombs Yemen into bloody submission. That some of those Great British Weapons occasionally find their way into the hands of those same nasty people (not Real ones) who are prone to aiming them back at us is quite ‘extremist’, isn’t it?

A preview of Rudd’s expected lecture…sorry, speech reads ‘Terrorists and extremists have sought to misuse your platforms to spread their hateful messages’ (unlike the Tory press recycling Jeremy Corbyn’s past ‘association’ with the IRA, then?). She will then go on to say ‘This Forum is a crucial way to start turning the tide. The responsibility for tackling this threat at every level lies with both governments and with industry…we have a shared interest: we want to protect our citizens and keep the free and open internet we all love.’ In her Telegraph piece, she claimed ‘This is not about asking the companies to break encryption…Real People often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, unbreakable security.’ Perfect and unbreakable to all but governments and their snooping secret services, lest we forget.

The Chief Executive of Big Brother Watch, Renate Samson, reacted to Rudd’s self-justifying waffle by calling it ‘at best naive, at worst dangerous’. He added ‘Suggesting that people don’t really want security from their online services is frankly insulting….once again, the Government are attempting to undermine the security of all in response to the actions of the few. We are all digital citizens; we all deserve security in the digital space.’

As part of the Home Secretary’s showy bragging about how the Government is dealing with this problem, she’s also expected to highlight how one police unit in Blightly has removed 28,000 examples of ‘terrorist content’ along with securing the closure of millions of online accounts over the past seven years. Rudd may well believe dredging up facts and figures of this nature supports her argument, but imagining any government can play at being a cyber Sgt Dixon giving mischievous Jihadists a clip round the ear-hole without stooping to snooping on everyone is pure Cloud Cuckoo Land. The only way any government can curb the antisocial tendencies of the badly-behaved internet is to apply the Joint Enterprise rule to all of us who use it. If we want to be ‘safe’, we have to sacrifice our privacy. Just be honest, Amber – or let us have a read of your emails.

© The Editor

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THE RISE OF THE CYBERMEN (AND WOMEN)

‘The Simpsons’ has always had an uncanny knack of predicting the near-future, usually doing so by making deliberately ridiculous predictions that few could imagine actually coming to pass. Such is the way of the world today, though, that the sublime has regularly been superseded by the ridiculous; there was famously a President Trump in an episode from 2000, after all. I recall another episode in which Homer is forced to take a job in a supermarket warehouse; finding it too much like hard work after being accustomed to putting his feet up at Mr Burns’ power station, he attempts to walk out, only to be prevented from doing so by the microchip his new employers have implanted in his neck to guarantee subservience to the company.

Lo and behold, it was reported this week that a Swedish company called Epicenter is already there in the non-animated world. Yes, microchip implantation is an option for Epicenter’s lucky employees; these embedded pieces of technology essentially act as a swipe card for the 150 out of 2,000 employees to have opted for the process – opening doors or paying for goods on-site with a wave of the hand. Epicenter pioneered turning its workforce into cyborgs two years ago, with the company’s CEO claiming the biggest benefit of the scheme is ‘convenience’.

A company in Belgium is apparently contemplating the same ‘convenience’ for its employees, for where some countries lead, others invariably follow. The relative reluctance of Epicenter employees to embrace the practice in great numbers speaks volumes; although the technology is no doubt in its infancy, there have been ethical concerns aired regarding the potential security risks. Ben Libberton, a microbiologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, claims hackers could access innumerable amounts of private information from implanted microchips, a worrying prospect that could increase as the technology inevitably becomes more sophisticated. Hackers accessing something inside us?

If all of this sounds like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian ‘Black Mirror’ series, it’s no wonder; ‘Black Mirror’ specialises in taking contemporary technology one step into the future and capitalising on current fears on how it has already become something so many are dependent on and implicitly place their trust in.

The revealing of personal details that are now a prerequisite for the majority of online transactions is unavoidable if outlets such as Facebook, Amazon and eBay are to be entered into, resulting in the collation of information that forms a cyber profile advertisers and manufacturers can then target. The whole ‘If you like that, you might like this’ or ‘suggested post’ syndrome is a direct side-effect of the info we surrender when we log on and sign in.

In many respects, so many are now so attached to their Smartphones that the object has more or less become an extension of their physical being as it is, provoking withdrawal symptoms akin to those of a toddler deprived of its dummy should their mobile be misplaced. But if a company can inject microchips into its employees on the grounds of ‘convenience’, how long before one of the leading tech corporations proposes developing the principle re the mobile phone? The way avid subscribers to such technology are willing to submit to its demands without a second thought suggests that this possibility would not necessarily be widely opposed.

While the approach of the Epicenter company is embryonic in terms of what could eventually happen and how it could be misused, more advanced experiments have been carried out on surgical grounds, and there are a small number of volunteers who have had electronic implants seemingly on the grounds of vanity and an apparent desire to be viewed as ‘interesting’. In a way, this is not dissimilar to those addicted to cosmetic surgery when they don’t really need it. The British artist Neil Harbisson is the first person to be officially recognised as a ‘cyborg’, having had an antenna embedded in his head, enabling him to receive what he calls ‘an extra sense’ since the interior soft-wear merged with his brain, giving him the ability to perceive colours outside of the usual human spectrum.

The British scientist Kevin Warwick and his wife chose to be cybernetic guinea pigs, with the former having 100 electrodes added to his nervous system in order that he could connect it to the internet. If all of this sounds scary to many, these individuals have at least volunteered, as have those employees of Epicenter; and were these implants to provide the bionic strength we were all led to believe they would via ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’, I suspect we’d all be queuing up to have them fitted; that was pre-cyberspace days, however. Today, Steve Austin would be an exemplary tool of the surveillance state rather than a superman. As so often happens, such technological developments don’t always fall into the hands of those whose means are benign.

© The Editor

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WHISPERING GRASS

dog-sweepSafe in the assumption you’ve probably digested your breakfast by now, I shall proceed. Dog-mess, the most polite term I can come up with, has always been a fixture of pavements as far back as I can remember. It was certainly a key element of the urban landscape in the 1970s, though there seemed to be a greater variance of shades then – white being the chic alternative to industry standard brown at the time. It shared sidewalk space with routine rubbish – empty crisp packets, smashed bottles, closing-time sick, discarded pages from ‘Playbirds’ et al – though the pavements then still didn’t seem quite as depressing-looking as today; the aesthetic carbuncle of the wheelie-bin line-up competes with the nose-to-tail parked car parade in a competition to decide which has rendered our streets the uglier.

I put the proliferation of dog-mess during my childhood down to the way in which man’s best friend (as with children back then) was free to roam in a way that is unimaginable now. What were usually called stray dogs were more often than not family pets that were let out of the house and left to their own devices as only cats are today. These latch-key canines ran wild through neighbourhoods, impregnating bitches at will, getting into territorial tussles with other mutts, striking fear into the hearts of kids who were instinctively scared of them, and even occasionally (as old ‘Match of the Day’ footage proves) finding their way onto football pitches in the middle of a match.

By contrast, a dog wandering alone now is such an unusual sight that people’s first thought is that the creature is lost, either having broken free of its lead when being walked or having escaped from its home without its owner’s knowledge. And that’s one aspect of British life that has undoubtedly changed for the better, both for the dogs and the people. So why is dog-mess still with us?

The best dog-owners today are a more conscientious bunch than their predecessors, preferring to escort their pets around local parks rather than letting them prowl the neighbourhood; and the arrival of the so-called ‘poo-bag’ has persuaded them to clean-up after their dog has done the business. Of course, not everyone adheres to this unwritten rule, and it is these pillocks that are the problem. At the same time, anybody who walks a dog regularly knows that sometimes the poo-bags are accidentally left at home, resulting in grass or leaves acting as makeshift camouflage in such an event; but overall, there’s definitely a greater impetus to exert that kind of responsibility than there ever used to be.

However, the wilfully defiant and the accidental amnesiac are grouped together in law when it comes to dog-fouling. Of late, local authorities have intervened, with the most recently vocal being the Mayor of Liverpool, who last week proclaimed that anyone providing evidence of dog owners failing to bag their pooch’s plop would be exempt from paying council tax for a year. Why not a weekend for two in Paris? Mayor Jon Anderson – who obviously turned to local politics when being the frontman of Yes finally caused him the same pain as it often has record-buyers – told a city cabinet meeting that ‘My wife was walking our dog the other day and came back with dog muck all over her shoes!’ He didn’t specify if counselling was available to his unfortunate missus, but our thoughts go out to Mrs Anderson.

The Mayor of Liverpool claimed his proposal was about restoring civic pride to his city; his idea is that people should provide the authorities with video or photographic proof that could lead to a criminal conviction, thus earning their reward. Fines of up to £1000 for dog-fouling already exist without the employment of grasses to do the council’s dirty work for them, but Mr Anderson believes his brainwave will bring communities together. A strange interpretation of the end result, for sure; dangling the council tax carrot before non-dog owners struggling to make ends meet and bribing them to turn into spies and snitches seems a funny way to bring communities together. Further divisions would seem more inevitable to me.

I once knew of someone who grassed a friend to the DHSS for simultaneously signing-on and working part-time, purely out of spite on account of said friend wanting to become a vicar while the grass was a fanatical atheist. It struck me as an especially shitty thing to do to someone who was supposed to be a friend; though the reasons themselves were ludicrous, just making that nasty phone-call evoked images of ‘collaborators’ in Nazi-occupied France. Okay, so that might sound a bit OTT, but who amongst us has never broken a little law, safe in the knowledge we could get away with it? When the music industry told us ‘home taping is killing music’ in the 80s, did it actually stop anyone copying songs onto a cassette from an LP? And has anyone buying a batch of fags from a bloke in a pub ever been that troubled by the lorry they fell off the back of?

Sure, dog owners who don’t pick up their pet’s mess from the park or pavement give other dog owners a bad name, and if they deliberately avoid cleaning up after Rover, it serves them right if they end up being fined. But Britain’s fractured communities don’t need a cynical incentive from local government to divide them further. The abundance of trashy TV shows that goad warring neighbours into action for cheap entertainment are bad enough; and then there are the warnings to keep an eye on next-door just in case a potential Paedo or Jihadist happens to be on the other side of the wall, advice in danger of turning us all into informers complicit in the surveillance state. It stinks – and the smell is far more pungent than a dog turd.

© The Editor

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THE LIVES OF EVERYONE

ddrOne of life’s unwritten rules is that you don’t read somebody else’s diary – the exception being the plethora of published journals from politicians and writers who have printed their day-to-day experiences for public consumption. There’s a world of difference between picking up one of those in a book shop and snooping through the diary of a spouse, friend or family member that they have deliberately stuffed under a pillow or inside a drawer to hide from prying eyes. Privacy does not necessarily equate with secrecy; we are all entitled to record what goes on in our heads for our own specific reasons and have no need to justify doing so. There’s nothing criminal in having something to hide if what you’re hiding is your innermost thoughts.

Diaries strip away the facade we present to the rest of the world and are unique personal time capsules that capture a moment in ways that posed photographs don’t. After penning our thought for the day, it can be years before we even return to what we wrote; the Radio 4 series ‘My Teenage Diary’, in which noted names voluntarily read aloud the adolescent angst they documented decades before, often reveals as much to the author as to the audience. But the prospect of others perusing them while the ink has barely dried on the page is a gross invasion of privacy on a par with burglary. Like many (I suspect), I suffered that indignity as a teenager and didn’t begin writing a diary again until I was well into my thirties and living alone.

As a renowned God-botherer, Theresa May clearly thinks she was put on this earth to do His work, and her self-righteous missionary zeal was evident in her dismissive attitude to personal privacy and the rights of the ordinary citizen during her six-year stint as Home Secretary. With the convenient smokescreen of combating cyberspace Paedos and home-grown Jihadists, she was forever pushing for greater access to the public’s online activity, as though it was her divine right to be an omnipotent presence in every aspect of our lives. Now that she is top of the political pile she has even greater clout to play Big Brother – or Big Mama. She’s the nosy mother who stumbles upon your teenage diary when she’s Hoovering your bedroom and sits down on the bed to have a good read of it.

Whilst what we do and where we go online is a different kettle of fish from jotting down what we’re thinking in a diary, it’s still something we engage in on our own and don’t broadcast to the nation for various reasons; it’s nobody’s business but ours. The common cliché of private browsing being a euphemism for jerking off to porn sites is misleading, but misleading in a way that suits the Investigatory Powers Bill (the so-called ‘Snoopers Charter’) that the Government is determined will become law. Of course, the most embarrassing internet surfing in terms of it being shared with strangers usually does involve detours down ‘adult’ avenues, though the legislation that has already passed unopposed through the Lords doesn’t concern itself solely with money shots or DIY explosives manuals; it covers everything.

The Investigatory Powers Bill is the kind of outrageously intrusive legislation one takes as a given in China, Russia or North Korea and would have accepted as par for the course had the internet existed in the era of the GDR or USSR. When (rather than if) it becomes law, the Government and their affiliated security services will have easy access to your personal phone records and internet traffic, and service providers will be forced to preserve your browsing data for twelve months, obliged to hand over that information to the authorities should they request it. However, there is a telling caveat, one that emphasises the Us and Them divide between Westminster and the electorate in the same way that the one drinking den exempt from the smoking ban happened to be situated in the Houses of Parliament – MPs will not be subject to such mandatory snooping. Sounds like a fair deal, doesn’t it?

Millions of people in the United Kingdom already have endless personal details on the files of internet service providers, banks, insurance companies, eBay, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter et al – whether through choice or necessity – so the info is there waiting to be perused by Government agencies like the untapped natural resource of a colonised country; the Investigatory Powers Bill will legitimise their reasons for perusing it. It brands everyone as a potential threat to the Realm in the same way a CRB check brands every adult seeking to educate children a potential paedophile.

News of the proposals in the legislation was masterfully buried beneath the extended convulsions that followed Trump’s triumph in the US Presidential Election, and had an online petition opposed to its implementation not appeared, it’s doubtful many would even be aware of it. I don’t recall it attaining headline status on any news or current affairs show on any mainstream broadcaster, oddly enough.

I’m under no illusions that those nice chaps at GCHQ already do what the hell they like with our privacy regardless of what the law currently says, and I know from personal experience that employees of a certain police force can dig in search of dirt to their heart’s content, whether or not they’re legally entitled to do so. But with the Investigatory Powers Bill just weeks away from gaining Royal Assent and then being added to the statue book, no longer will the spies, spooks and snoopers have to officially circumnavigate their way around our rights to keep an eye on us. The law will give them carte-blanche to do so, and there’s nothing we can do about it. This might help, however…

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/173199

© The Editor

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WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE

halUpon arriving at an open-air public car park last week, the attendant informed me that purchasing a ticket to stick on the dashboard was old hat; the system as it now stood required no such exchange. Once returning to one’s vehicle, a machine on site required the typing-in of one’s registration number and said machine would then calculate how much money was needed based on the length of time one was parked. The information provided to the machine enabled it to know precisely how long each visitor had used the facilities, which seemed uncomfortably reminiscent of HAL from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Mind you, what doesn’t these days? The increasing reality of one’s every move being at the whim of a sentient being that is generated by computerised technology in public spaces has happened with such stealth that few even stop and think about it.

CCTV cameras often seem to be in place simply to make the job of the police detective easier than it would have been when genuine detection and intelligence were prerequisites for the post; and they’ve been absorbed into the urban landscape with seamless nonchalance. Those who froth at the mouth and hoist their placards over trivial issues that have no direct impact on their own lives are quite content to do so under the all-seeing eye of the State, apparently incapable of looking upwards and seeing the real outrage. How many cases have been closed on the shaky strength of a fuzzy image captured on CCTV? Similarly, the insidious presence of Speed Cameras, punitive robotic Jobsworths collecting fines to fund the lavish expenses of local councillors, is another odious innovation implemented under false pretences. And nobody seems especially concerned.

The recent announcement of ‘Smart Generation’ household appliances such as kettles that will anticipate the householder’s coffee or tea needs and act accordingly has been greeted as a great leap forward by a populace incapable of looking beyond the corporate PR. The astonishing gullibility of people whose faith in technology blinds them to ulterior motives is remarkable, especially when one considers the thriving online conspiracy theory industry, which proposes the most implausible fantasies imaginable, yet has a willing audience of twilight-hours disciples.

It almost feels as though each conspiracy theory has to be on the grandest of scales to be believed. Devotees will unquestionably accept that the Moon Landings were faked or that Kennedy was assassinated by aliens or that 70s Tories raped and murdered children on an industrial scale, but will willingly hand over their personal details to any chic gadget without thinking it remotely sinister.

The news that some Santander accounts have been infiltrated by hackers, hot on the heels of revelations involving Tesco last week, again highlights the acute vulnerability of systems that virtually every institution has embraced without a second thought. During the US Presidential Election, Donald Trump’s pre-victory insistence that the contest was rigged in favour of his opponent appeared to be based on the method of voting, which in many cases was done using touch-screen technology. The traditional pencil-on-paper system in the polling booth, whereupon full ballot boxes are then escorted to the counting centres under the strictest official supervision, was virtually foolproof. Whenever this has been altered, whether via postal voting or the ‘chad’ farce that caused so much trouble in 2000, problems and accusations of tampering arise. The thought that future voting could be solely an online exercise opens the floodgates for all manner of abuse.

It is amazing how converting so many transactions to exclusively online exchanges has been undertaken free from doubt over the last decade. It’s as if nobody has ever heard of the existence of hackers at all. Official correspondence or financial dealings that were once done on the phone or in person are now more or less all the province of the computer, the laptop and the Smartphone. Even the most insignificant exchange today requires the amount of personal information that would once have been reserved for Checkpoint Charlie, though passwords are not the impregnable fortresses we are led to believe. So many people construct them with personal details such as dates of birth, mother’s maiden name or the name of first pets, yet this has already been openly provided to the likes of Facebook, which is accessible without much in the way of effort. Hackers have the technology that can feed all this info into a blender that will then calculate the numerous permutations of a password before eventually coming up with the correct one. They don’t even break sweat.

The unthinking transference of intimate facts to a database that is hardly the Fort Knox of Cyberspace is entered into with headshaking naivety in many cases. I have a friend whose Facebook wall is crammed with gifts for the unscrupulous. Every time she goes on holiday, she announces the fact beforehand and then floods her wall with images of said vacation while her home stands empty and available for any techno-savvy burglar. Even if she has a house-sitter during her absence, she will also announce this fact, thus alerting the burglar to the news that the house-sitter’s home is empty.

It beggars belief that intelligent individuals can be so stupid when it comes to their online identities, yet it’s so commonplace today that China’s State suppression of Google seems almost quaint, an archaic throwback to Soviet-style surveillance of its citizens that is unnecessary when the citizens themselves are quite happy to surrender their secrets to Google as it is.

It doesn’t matter which system is the user’s preferred choice – Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay, YouTube, Instragram or any of the endless new kids on the techno block – one only has to show a moderate interest in anything and the bombardment begins. If you like that, you might like this etc. We know you better than you know yourself. We know what your preferences are in music, films, TV, books, clothes, food. We are your friends. You will like what we suggest. You will do as you’re told. You will buy that gun and you will assassinate President Trump.

© The Editor

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