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Author: R Corrigan

Blocking your browsers or checking your knickers: On technology, privacy and anonymity

Updated Friday, 5th February 2010
Ray Corrigan asks if we're not a little too quick to condemn China's attitude to privacy when our own use of technology might go a bit too far

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A few weeks ago Google announced, in the wake of ‘a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure’ and to widespread plaudits in the Western media at least, that the company was taking a stand against China.

They would no longer censor Chinese search results in accordance with the local laws and if the government didn’t like it then they would withdraw their business from the country. US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, subsequently criticised China over the attacks and called on Google to avoid facilitating "politically motivated censorship".

In The Enemy of the State, the second programme of The Virtual Revolution series, Dr Aleks Krotoski looks at China via the notion of a digital arms race between the individual and the state, a model through which the government attempts to control the individual by mass censorship, propaganda and surveillance.

Many people are aware of the "Great Firewall of China", the internet filters deployed by China to censor web pages containing terms like ‘Falun Gong’, ‘Dalai Lama’ or ‘Tiananmen Square massacre’. Yahoo!, another big US technology company, has been accused of working “regularly and efficiently with the Chinese police" to hand over the personal details of dissident web bloggers, leading to terms of 8 and 10 years respectively for Li Zhi and Shi Tao for criticising their government.

Microsoft, Cisco and numerous other global companies have also been vilified for cooperating in censoring the web in China. Most defend themselves, as Google do, "in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results."

As an Irish, white, middle class academic, resident in the UK, I can grumble about unethical behaviour of big business and the poor human rights record of regimes like China or Iran through the lens of a simplistic algorithm:

China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea = totalitarian states


Censorship + surveillance = scary + bad


Citizen anonymity = necessary + good

Standing for security at an airport/ [Image: Thinkstock]
Standing for security at an airport.

Yet such smug simplistic models rarely tell the real story. It is not just the supposed totalitarian states that are engaged in large scale censorship and surveillance. Freedom of speech has never been an absolute. Even in the US, where it is protected by the first amendment to the constitution, citizens don’t have the freedom to yell "fire!" in a crowded theatre.

At the behest of the UK government, in response to a failed attempt to blow up a plane with explosives hidden in the attacker’s underpants, Heathrow Airport has installed digital strip search machines for the masses. UK Transport Secretary Andrew Andonis said: "In the immediate future, only a small proportion of airline passengers will be selected for scanning. If a passenger is selected for scanning, and declines, they will not be permitted to fly." You will not be allowed on a plane at Heathrow if you refuse to go through a digital strip search when asked.

Laws in the UK, US and a range of other Western democracies require surveillance capability to be built into our communications networks, large scale data retention and the construction of large databases of personal information, all in the name of combating terrorism, crime or protecting children and intellectual property. Wide scale censorship of the Net takes place not just in China and Saudi Arabia but in the UK, parts of the US, Canada, Spain, France, Australia, Germany and many other countries in an attempt to block such horrors as child pornography or Nazi propaganda. Yet that is ok in the simplistic model of the world I presented earlier:

UK, US, Germany, France = democracies


Censorship + surveillance = necessary to protect children + stop terrorists


Anonymity = bad, if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear

But the model quickly breaks down on all fronts when examined in any detail. Firstly you have to realise that software filters, known by critics as ‘censorware’, don’t do value judgements. They often censor perfectly legitimate sites and fail to block illegal ones. They often also censor websites which are critical of the companies selling the filter software. And in 1999 a big US internet service provider, IDT, shut down all internet traffic originating in the UK because of a spam problem they traced to a computer at Leeds University.

Secondly, anyone with even the mildest understanding of the value of personal privacy has no time for the over-used empty soundbite ‘nothing to hide nothing to fear’, deployed regularly by politicians with large database ‘cures’ for various societal ills.

And thirdly, the thing about technical and legal architectures of surveillance is they are not the exclusive playground of the good guys. The Internet makes our world more complicated not less so. Government computers are widely and virtually irreversibly networked with private sector machines; and governments have not got a great record of building totally reliable, fit-for-purpose, secure information systems. Large, valuable, porous information systems with built-in surveillance tools are very attractive targets for individuals, organisations and states with malign intent.

They also have a tendency to be misused by public officials because they are convenient to use. So for example council officials in the UK use anti-terror laws and technical facilities to spy on families suspected of lying on their forms when applying to get their children into good state schools. After the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001, then President George W. Bush ordered the National Security Agency to use surveillance systems hardwired into the telecoms network to illegally engage in mass warrantless wiretapping of the phone conversations of tens of thousands of people.*

I’m not suggesting the UK government have anything like the totalitarian intent of the cold war East German or Soviet regimes or that MI5 or MI6 have the terrifying influence of the Stasi, the KGB or the Nazi SS. Gordon Brown is certainly no Mao Zedong and respected journalists like Henry Porter or former Information Commissioner Richard Thomas are not going to suddenly be detained and locked up for 10 years for repeatedly accusing the government of “sleepwalking into a surveillance state”. But we continue to construct and expand these systems at our peril and the threats they pose are real not virtual.

The services and components of the global surveilled communications infrastructure, are supplied by global corporations like Vodaphone, Ericsson, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Intel, Nokia, Siemens and, yes, Google, as well as companies in cheap manufacturing bases like India and China. These organisations variously do business in the EU, the Americas, Eastern Europe, Middle East and Asia because such business provides a return for their shareholders.

Shanghai [Image: Cuellar  under CC-BY-NC licence]
Shanghai [Image: Cuellar  under CC-BY-NC licence]

To the degree that such business facilitates economic development in countries like China, and the consequent improvement of overall living standards, that’s generally a good thing.

To the extent that it facilitates the suppression of basic civil rights, such companies need to be more active in engaging with the Chinese authorities in ways that can influence them to respect such rights more widely and more wisely.

Time will tell what effect the current Google exchanges with the emerging economic superpower will have. As to whether it is enlightening to view the Web in the context of China through the model of a digital arms race between the individual and the state, I’ll leave you, the reader, to decide.

But the final word goes to James Fallows, who has regularly and eloquently argued that China’s relations with the West are more complex and potentially beneficial for both sides than is typically reported, that “China is a still-poor, highly-diverse and individualistic country whose development need not "threaten" anyone else and should be encouraged” but also warns:

“In a strange and striking way there is an inversion of recent Chinese and U.S. roles. In the switch from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, the U.S. went from a president much of the world saw as deliberately antagonizing them to a president whose Nobel Prize reflected (perhaps desperate) gratitude at his efforts at conciliation. China, by contrast, seems to be entering its Bush-Cheney era. For Chinese readers, let me emphasize again my argument that China is not a "threat" and that its development is good news for mankind. But its government is on a path at the moment that courts resistance around the world. To me, that is what Google's decision signifies.”

*For a really interesting perspective on phone tapping in historical context is it worth having a look at this Pathé News clip from 1957 , on the widespread shock over the illegal wiretapping of a phone conversation between a UK barrister Patrick Marriman and his client, a known and self confessed criminal, Billy Hill. [Back to main article]

Find out more

Video: John Perry Barlow talks about bringing together China and the internet

Privacy International Leading Surveillance Societies in the World Map 2007

The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture
John Battelle, Nicholas Brealey Publishing

The Google Story: Inside the Hottest Business, Media and Technology Success of Our Time
David A Vise, Macmillan

When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World
Martin Jacques, Allen Lane

China: A History
John Keay, HarperPress

Report of the Committee of Privy Councillors appointed to inquire into the interception of communications
Presented to Parliament by the Prime Minister by Command of Her Majesty October 1957

The Digital Person: technology and privacy in the information age
Daniel J Solove, New York University Press

No Place to Hide
Robert O'Harrow Junior, Free Press

The File: A Personal History
Timothy Garton Ash, Harper Collins

Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping
Patrick Radden Keefe, Random House

Privacy On The Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption
Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau, MIT Press

Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in a Post-9/11 World
Maureen Web, City Lights Books

Schneier on Security
Bruce Schneier, Wiley Publishing

Security Engineering: A Guide to Building Dependable Distributed Systems, 2nd Edition
Ross Anderson, Wiley Publishing

Code and other laws of cyberspace
Lawrence Lessig, Basic Books

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