The latest idea from the Federal Department of Stuffing Up the Internet is even more counter-productive than the last one. I haven’t written about the proposed (and now delayed) ISP level filtering – the so-called ‘clean feed’ – simply because others have already done so far better and at more length than I could have. But the new plan to require that ISPs log and retain data about all their customers’ web-browsing is even worse. It would be electoral suicide if enough people understood what it would mean.
Again, others have written about the gross invasion of privacy. I want to explore a different angle, that of data versus intelligence. Defenders of any form of surveillance often come out with the line that if you’re doing nothing wrong, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. That holds true when it comes to security cameras at stations (I’m all for them) but on the internet, there are plenty of ways to look like you might be doing something wrong when you’re not. Here are some examples from personal experience:
As mentioned in the fragment of bio to the right of your window, I teach computers – mostly to novices. The week before our first session on the internet, I always ask students to bring in an internet address they’d like to look up, and a topic they would like to search the internet for. One nice older gentleman, who was attending with his wife, wanted to look up information about the gold rush. Specifically, he wanted to get some information about the guards who protected the prospectors who had come over from South Australia as they brought their take home. These guards were called the Gold Escorts, so my student wanted to search for gold escorts south australia. It was a perfectly legitimate search for a perfectly innocent reason, so you can imagine my discomfort at having to warn him, while his wife was sitting beside him, that such a search query could also reveal more than he ever wanted to know about Adelaide nightlife. We did the search anyway, with the warning of what it might deliver, and the results were about 50/50 historical articles and (ahem) adult services. The ads, however, were 100% the latter.
Then there was the time I was showing a group how to set up a web-mail address. One of the students was a Filipino lady with not much English. For reasons that I couldn’t really glean at the time, she had chosen ‘porn’ as her login name. To save us both the embarrassment of having to explain the word, I just told her that it was such a common word on the internet that it had probably been taken and she’d best choose something else.
Earlier this year, I had a student who wanted to look up the Anarchist Cookbook. I told him that was fine but, with the clean feed proposal, to just be mindful of how it might look if his search history were revealed. There are numerous legitimate and innocent reasons why someone might want to look up the Anarchist Cookbook, or Mein Kampf, or Das Kapital, but it’s just as easy for someone on a fishing trip to look at those searches, put 2 and 2 together, and get 97.
This is all assuming that people are aware of what they are doing. As we all know, a lot of people who use the internet have no idea of what they are doing. The more experienced ’net users know that you can point to THIS LINK and see the true address displayed in the bottom left corner of the browser window. But with URL shorteners and aggregators, there’s no way of knowing where http://bit.ly/b7ly6X will take you until you click it. No form of data collection can take that into account. How would anyone like to take responsibility for every link they’ve innocently clicked and then regretted it? How would anyone like a misunderstood search query going on their permanent record?
Of course, in the examples I gave above, the history would not reflect on them because they were not at home, they were at my workplace. Those examples could easily be looked at out of context and someone could say, “Escorts? Porn? Anarchists? Just what is he teaching those people?” Well, I’m teaching them about the internet, and these things happen on the internet.
And this leads to the other reason that retaining everyone’s browsing history will not work. Anyone who really is a threat to public safety on any level, is not going to be using a visible internet account. They will either be using public internet access or a series of proxies. They’re not stupid. They’ve seen Spooks too. So unless the government intends to force every café, every hotel, every library, every McDonald’s to put its customers through the same kind of application process that it usually takes to get a mobile phone, then this latest scheme is not going to make anyone any safer. It simply gives the illusion of doing something useful while making us all a bit more paranoid.