Wednesday 7 January 2009

The assault on liberty continues

Some radical thinkers in the Conservative Party are about to introduce a new book, the assault on liberty, what went wrong with rights. Apparently it blames the labour party for the emergence of the database state. It does look like an interesting read, but from what they've been saying on the radio, it gets a couple of facts wrong.

It's not New Labour. The Infringement of civil liberties goes back many governments. The introduction of Internment, for example, was under Heath's conservative government as was the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism (Emergency Powers) act. Similarly, anyone who recalls the Thatcher era should remember its view of dissent. The enemy within.

What's interesting about Labour is that they started off with a vision: incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into legislation, so giving UK courts the ability to use it in decisions, rather than waiting for judgements to come out of Strasbourg. And yet as they embraced the emergency, (as in "your civil rights have been suspended for the emergency"), all their ideals went out the window, out from the folder of "things that kept Northern Ireland contained" came a list of ideas -internment, ID cards, surveillance, shooting of bystanders- and some of them were rolled out.

What changed since the 1970s, however, was technology. Then: shillings and sixpences, part time electricity, cameras bulky things with "film" that needed "developing"; phones something that came in one colour from the G.P.O. Now: pay debit card, mobile phones, emails. In cities with half-decent public transport, we wave our Oystercards at the buses and tube stations, stations with digital CCTV cameras. All of these actions leave a trace, packets in the net, which can either be discarded or retained "for our own safety". That's what's changed. Not the government, but how, through increasing integration of the physical and data worlds, the instrumentation of the real world, it's easier to collect truckloads of data than ever before. So of course central government is going to collect it: they can, so they will. And we will be grateful. It's for or own good. Only people that have things to hide need to worry about having every email, the location of their phone and their car, every web page fetched logged for 3 years. For the rest of us, it's something to be grateful for.

Yet these dissidents are complaining about it, and using the phrase "the database state" to describe what is emerging. Which is where they go wrong again. Databases don't scale to truckloads of data. At most you get a few tens of terabytes out of one, but a terabyte, a thousand-ish gigabytes, only costs you a thousand pounds in a shop, let alone if you phone up a server vendor and ask for a serious quantity. A terabyte of data doesn't costs that much at all. So why stop at a few terabytes, not when recording the location of every mobile phone when it made/received a call creates a wonderful Directed Graph that lets you map who called who and where, who is friends with whom, who never speaks to anyone else except two other pay-per-use SIM cards. Same for emails. You can do fun things with that data, but not if your database doesn't have room for it.

For that you need a decent distributed multi-Petabyte filesystem like GoogleFS; a Petabyte being 1024 Terabytes. Without something like that, there's no way to store all the masses of generated data. The liberties issue in the future is not the database state, its the datacentre state, or the Petabyte-filesystem-with-MapReduce-job-scheduler state. Yet the conservative party live in the technology of the nineties, not what is cutting edge today.

Bristol Traffic are using a Petabyte-filesystem-with-MapReduce-job-scheduler; the big distributed GoogleFS filesystem, and today appear infringing on the civil liberties of this car KU51UEV

The driver is trying to hide his face from the camera, because he does not want to participate in our community database state, just for driving down the one way system on Nugent Hill and so endangering anyone trying to cycle up it.

How dare these cyclists infringe this driver's right to drive the wrong way down the one-way stretch at the end of Nugent Hill! Before New Labour came about, you could happily drive down it, if you were stopped by a police man a quick masonic handshake and you'd be on your way. If a cyclist was in your way, you'd sound your horn, they'd shake their fist at you and you would drive past them.

But now, now with these datacentres, with large indexing systems, these innocent car drivers can be photographed and indexed, their pictures on the web, along with their registration numbers. What a terrible thing New Labour has let loose on the world. Somebody should start a campaign against it. Maybe the Evening Post, now it's lost the Residents' Parking battle.

In London, the police are taking a stand; only central government is allowed to take photograph in public. Hence Croydon's Conservative MP got stopped and searched under the current Prevention of Terrorism laws for taking photos of the local bike lane. He is rightfully grateful for this experience, which shows that the police will stop anyone photographing bike lanes, regardless of race or age. [source: Crap Cycle Lanes of Croydon].

Who in Bristol will fight back against these subversives building a community datacentre-hosted surveillance infrastructure?


Anonymous said...

As a cyclist I have always been in favour of the surveillance and control of cars by cameras.
Now I am not so sure.
The use of technology by the state to control us is just one of the subjects that will be debated,
by speakers from the left and the right, at a major convention on the 28th Feb. in London.
I suggest that you go along and listen to these speakers:-

and air your own views.

Anonymous said...

Reference my comment above, and if you do not wish to visit the site, these are a few of the 90 plus speakers:-
Philip Pullman, Helena Kennedy QC, Nick Clegg MP, David Davis MP, Henry Porter, Shami Chakrabarti, Dominic Grieve MP QC, Prof Quentin Skinner, Lord Bingham, Sunny Hundal, Lord Goldsmith, Simon Jenkins, Anthony Barnett, Chris Huhne MP, Caroline Lucas MEP, Moazzam Begg, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Prof David Marquand, Nick Cohen, Christopher Meyer and many many more.

SteveL said...

That looks interesting. Maybe I should give a talk at the bristol conference, one on community datamining "It's our police state, we can play with it if we want to"