(mis)adventures in software development...

22 November 2014

They’re coming for us and our metadata

Category Technology

They’re coming for us.

Them — the politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers.

They coming for us — programmer, developers, designers, scientists, engineers. Us geeks.

They’re coming for us, for our freedoms, and for our privacy, and they’re calling this “mandatory data retention”. Or metadata. Or “national security”. But regardless of what they call it, it is in fact just an outright attack on our democratic rights and freedoms.

They’re coming for us. To maintain their power and influence. And stifle ours.

It’s a war. Which They are winning. And we are losing quite badly.

Especially in Australia.

The Abbott government has managed to successfully screw us out of a decent Fibre-based broadband network (the only thing the previous government got right). They screwed up the NBN, so now they’ve got their sights set on screwing up the technology industry in other ways.

They’re doing this under the pretext of reforming “national security” legislation, but calling it that gives it credibility is doesn’t deserve, because it will do little to combat the risk of terrorism. (A real risk, but realistically small in Australia, certainly not high enough for draconian legislation that takes away democratic freedoms.) It’s far more accurate to call it “anti-democracy” legislation.

The first tranche of legislation was an attack on freedom of the press. It threatens anyone who says or writes anything about an ASIO special operation — journalist, blogger or social media user — with up to 10 years in jail. And anything can be deemed an ASIO special operation. It also gives ASIO the power to spy on the entire internet with a single warrant, and to plant spyware on people’s computers.

The second tranche further restricts freedom of speech, and sets a disturbing precedent for essentially treating people as guilty unless they can prove they are innocent.

The third batch of regulation has the technical community in its sights. It is a full on attack on the internet, and it users. On us.

The government wants to force ISPs to retain customer “metadata” — to store phone and internet usage data on all their customers. They want ISPs to spy on us on behalf of the government. Spy on our phone calls, and on our internet usage.

Apart from being creepy, there are many reasons this is a bad idea.

It will be expensive, and the cost will inevitably be passed on to us. This will essentially be an “internet tax”, in that it will make internet access more expensive in Australia. And Australia already has expensive yet crappy internet.

It is a gross invasion of privacy. And it isn’t even clear who will end up having access to this metadata. It seems likely that it will be used as evidence to prosecute online piracy, as well as being used in all kinds of civil lawsuits.

But most disturbingly, it will have the opposite effect to that intended. It will actually make us all less safe. This stored metadata will be an irresistible honeypot for hackers the world over. It means hackers will inevitably get access to all sorts of sensitive metadata, of both individuals and government employees. Best case scenario this hacked metadata is used to embarrass the politicians who voted for it. Worst case is it’s used to blackmail people in positions of power.

Mandatory data retention will do little to make us safer, but it will make the internet more expensive, slower, less secure, and less private. It’s win for government, but a loss for everyone else.

We are basically losing a war against politicians trying to take away our freedoms, making things more difficult for us, and generally meddling in an industry they don’t understand.

They’re winning.

What’s worse is not just that they’re winning, but that they are clearly idiots with delusions of competence. The worst thing is that we are losing to a bunch of out of touch and ill-informed idiots.

This has been obvious in the past few months.

Attorney-General George Brandis threw the first turd in the metadata shitfight when he did an interview on Sky News to announce the government’s intention to introduce mandatory data retention.

During this interview, Brandis was unable to explain what metadata actually is. He clearly had no idea. This is the guy who spend thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to build fancy bookcases for his office. It seems none of those of those books had a serviceable definition of metadata.

As funny as that trainwreck of an interview is (and it is funny), it’s also depressing because of what it implies. There is no positive way of looking at it. It’s disturbing no matter which angle you take.

The most charitable interpretation is that George Brandis is simply an idiot. But if the George Brandis is a simpleton theory is too simplistic, then it implies that he didn’t care enough about the issues to do even some basic research into the topic before going on TV to talk about it. There he was, talking about introducing draconian legislation likely to severely impact millions of people, not to mention introduce huge costs to many businesses, and not across any of the issues. Not even on a really basic level. (If he’d at least said something like “source IP address” or “DHCP logs”, even if somewhat out of context so it was obvious he didn’t really understand the specifics, it would have at least shown he had made some effort to understand the technical details. It would have at least shown he was professional enough to do some fucking research. But all he could manage was to incoherently mumble about “web addresses”, which means nothing, and shows how little he cares about doing his job properly.)

If the Attorney General can’t be bothered doing even some basic research on technical terminology, it’s probably an indication of how little everyone else in the government really cares about the subtleties of this anti-democracy legislation they’re planning. And of how little this government care about technology industries in general.

The government would like nothing better than to ram all this legislation through parliament with little debate, and even less thought about the consequences. They are meddling in an area they don’t understand. And they clearly don’t care.

Obviously there aren’t enough votes in this for them to care.

Which I guess is why it’s important for us, those of us who do care about such thing, to spread the word about how terrible the decisions our political masters are making.

I would have thought Brandis’s disastrous metadata interview would have had some consequences, possibly derailed the government’s plans a bit. But it didn’t seem to, because shortly after followed a unbelievable sequence of stupidity from senior government ministers:

Treasurer Joe Hockey revealed he thinks poor people don’t drive cars.

Senator Eric Abetz revealed he thinks abortion causes breast cancer. (Based on research from the 1950’s, apparently, which makes one wonder what decade he thinks we’re in now?)

The metadata stupidity was lost in the mix. It’s as if we have a government governing through abject stupidity and constant fuck ups. As First Dog on the Moon so aptly put it, it’s Operation Ongoing Enormous Clusterfuck Is The New Normal.

The weird thing is, it seems to be working. They’re winning. The government managed to ram through the first two tranches of anti-democracy legislation quickly and with little debate. They tried to do the same with the metadata legislation, but thankfully failed, which is one small, tiny win for us. But it looks likely to get passed early next year.

The idiots are going to win.

Unless we can make the mainstream see what a terrible idea it is. Unless we can convince enough voters (or enough voters in marginal electorates) that there will be a tangible downside of having the government constantly spying on them, and turning ISPs into tools of state surveillance.

Unless we can make the government care by making sure they lose votes because of this, and possibly make sure their campaign donors lose out in some way. It’s going to take a lot more than just tweets and bitching about it on social media, or making clever memes.

What are the chances we can pull that off?

We’re screwed. The idiots are going to win again.