Archiv der Kategorie: Virginia’s Corner

The poisonous DRIP and trickle

I couldn’t get myself to write lately. I was swamped with work and, frankly,  I was too angry to trust myself to write anything but bitter rants.
It is time for one such now, it seems. For the British Government seems to think that they can simply circumvent human rights standards by means of emergency legislation.

In April the CJEU declared the Data Retention Directive to be invalid (PDF). Not on technicalities, but because they saw human rights violated. With that, most experts agreed, most if not all national laws and acts on blanket data retention and interception powers were rendered inoperative.

At No. 10, however,  they seem to believe they can basically just ignore that ruling.  Well, no, not ignore, really, since DRIP is a direct answer to that ruling. It is the attempt, it seems, to not only hold on to blanket data retention and  interception powers, but in some places expand on said powers – even though the PM, of course, denies this.

Obviously the British Government believes that (certain) human rights should do not apply in the UK. Well, then tell us that and stop lying about the need for such powers. Studies have shown quite conclusively that there is reason to doubt that data retention does significantly help combating  terrorism and serious crime : Here’s one from the renowned Max-Planck-Institut (german).
Show probable cause, get a warrant — old-school but will work just as well. Contrary to what the proponents of DRIP want to have us believe that holds true even for terrorism and sexual exploitation.

And an emergency bill? Honestly? Are we at war?
No. The truth is much more pedestrian: Some desperately want to hold on to those powers (let’s all take a guess who that might be) and the Government is afraid telecommunication companies might put an end to it (or at least create a gap) by deleting connection data to avoid lawsuits from customers. They even say so themselves. But more importantly, rushing DRIP through Parliament in this manner was clearly a means of avoiding scrutiny and debate or amendments. One is inclined to agree with Tom Watson, Labour’s  former election campaign chief, who called it an „insult“ and likened it  to „democratic banditry resonant of a rogue state“.

This bill is, in substance, another escalation toward a surveillance state. It expands, rather than limits the spying powers of security services and agencies, and by extending their reach to foreign communications companies it sets a dangerous precedent. As does the way it was passed.

Again and again it has to be said that all of this snooping is deeply dangerous and harmful. The CJEU explicitly states citizens „feeling that their private lives are the subject of constant surveillance“ as one reason to strike down the Directive. People under surveillance tend to censor themselves which is poison to any free society. This DRIP, DRIP, dripping is part of that trickle (or is it a stream already?) which, mostly unseen and too often unheeded, runs under the foundations of our society and might eventually serve to undermine our freedom and bring it tumbling down.

The lure of tutelage

It is one of the exquisite contradictions of our society, that we tend to allow conditions to persist in one quarter which we would not tolerate in another.

The latest example of this curious tendency is found in a post in the ‚Schools‘ section of the Guardian’s online service. Conal Urquhart informs us very matter-of-factly about a program, used at 1,400 British schools,  that monitors for ‚problematic online behaviour‘. At the heart of the software is a dictionary „[…] which deals with sexting, suicide, grooming, self-harm, adult content, eating disorders, bullying and trolling, racism and homophobia“. So basically we are dealing with a keyword searching surveillance system not unlike, albeit much simpler, the ones the NSA and GCHQ foisted on us all. And yet not a word of criticism, not an ounce of disapproval. Why not?

An obvious line of reasoning might be that schools have the responsibility to look after the children and have to take an active interest in their welfare. That is exactly the line, of course, the security services give us for the ubiquitous surveillance of every one of us. But let us allow for a moment that, since here we actually are dealing with minors, more is permissible here than in the world outside the school. That still raises the question, however, where to draw the line? Where does it cease to be reasonable protection and become meddling? What this question comes down to is simply this: Is the principle of proportionality violated? Obviously the system scans all online activity by all pupils. The software, we learn, then „generates reports for teachers“. Even if we are not told whether these reports are generated for all monitored individuals, we must assume that the software has the capacity to do just that (and so must the monitored). The privacy of all is invaded to protect a minority from a very unspecific threat. Arguably, this can be called disproportionate.

Yet where our children are concerned we are much more inclined to condone measures that we would otherwise consider disproportionate. Understandably so — to protect them is in our instincts. But we cannot lock them in a padded room to keep them away from the dangers of the world. And (with a few sad exceptions) we know this. Eventually, we want them to make their own way in this world – and for them to be able to do so we have to let go of them. We learn to let go of the toddlers hands to allow them to walk for themselves, we stop walking them to school and at some point let them move out and find their own place. But the urge to protect, not only our children, but ‚the weaker‘ members of our society, the vulnerable, is always there. That can be a good thing – compassion is one of the pillars of any society after all – but if it becomes an end in itself, tutelage lurks around the corner.

More dramatically even, there seems to be a desire in all most of us to be on the receiving end of such ‚care‘. The image of Eden is still that of a paradise of ignorant bliss. But what defines us more than anything as human is our consciousness, our reason, our constant struggle with and for knowledge. And the free use of our reason – for good or evil: Only east of Eden did humanity become truly human. (Who said an atheist can’t use biblical imagery?). The task is arduous and thus from time to time we all like to shrink from it. Maybe not only from laziness and cowardice, as Kant would have us believe, but from the sheer exhaustion of struggling and a longing for the time of our innocency. At that point we are met by our self-appointed guardians, the serpents in reverse, who will convince us that we may lay our burden down. And they are for ever advertising their guardianship. Have you ever stopped to wonder how much the ubiquitous surveillance permeates our day to day experience, even in popular entertainment: We have become used to the police in our favourite crime drama using CCTV to catch the baddies, we see them do database searches, and order mass DNA swabs. It is all there, trying to convince us that it is normal and good. That all we have to do is submit to the immixtio manuum and swear fealty and all will be well.
But all will not be well.

Just to be clear about this: I am not saying there is a conspiracy out there. Some things tend to take a certain direction on their own. All the more reason to to stop and ask ourselves: Is this really the way I want things to go? To ask with every new measure  that is introduced: Is it really proportionate? To take a deep breath and soldier on towards enlightenment.

Sapere aude!

„Affirmative, Dave. I read you.“

Don’t feed the trolls. So I am writing this against my better judgement, really. But I just realised that Councillor David Silvester may have a point!

When I think back to the day I first kissed another girl: Well, it did feel like stars colliding. What if they did? Did entire solar systems blink out of existence that moment? Are we responsible for that? Did we incur the wrath of …

No, wait a moment… You almost had me there, Dave. Nice try but – really: No.
And by the way: The same part of the Scripture that you and yours love to quote against homosexuality bans eating fat (Leviticus  3:17), pork (Leviticus 11:7) – goodbye bacon and eggs – , and explicitly commands against cutting your hair or trimming your beard (Leviticus 19:27) – and judging from your photograph on the BBC’s page you’re at least guilty of the latter two sins, Mr. Silvester.

Another classic is found in Deuteronomy 23:1: „He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.“ — Best pray then, you’ll never get testicular cancer…

So why are you so sure it’s gay marriage that brought down God’s wrath (allowing for a second a natural disaster can be interpreted as such – which it really can’t, that’s why we call it natural disaster) and not the poor sod who survived cancer and has the audacity to enter the Lord’s temple in defiance of said law? Or your obvious lack of beard? Or your haircut (or the PM’s –  in case it’s the head of government (pun intended) that matters)? See how quickly it gets tricky, when you use ancient religious texts to condemn others?

Ah, but what am I doing, arguing with trolls:

„Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose any more. Goodbye.“
(„I feel much better now. I really do.“)

[Quotes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey and the King James Version]

I am not paranoid, I am angry!

I need to swot up on my origami, it seems.

I never considered myself to be paticularly fond of conspiracy theories – quite the contrary, I have always maintained that one should never explain with conspiracy what can as easily be explained with idiocy. Which makes it all the more frustrating to be accused of ‚wearing the tin foil hat‘ in discussions about the NSA/GCHQ (et al.) surveillance scandal. What I find almost as irritating as the fact of the ubiquitous breach of my privacy is the reaction of an alarmingly large number of my fellow citizens:

We have nothing to hide

As if that would make it right to spy on each and everyone of us.
Since it is pointless to try and start a security vs freedom debate with them, I instead like to ask those people: „But you do seal your letters, you do lock the bathroom door when you wee, you do close the curtains when you have sex – why? if you have nothing to hide?“ But somehow they manage to remain unperturbed.

Can I watch then?

„Not being pervy, just trying to ensure your safety and security – the bathroom is a dangerous place, you know.
„And by the way, I’d like to have cameras installed in your house to ensure the security of your kids in case you might be abusive, or even a paedophile.“

Of course that is usually where I get very indignant reactions from them (not only from those that would not get the sarcasm). But an awful lot of people would not make the jump to our government’s surveillance programmes: Obviously it is something else entirely if I invade their privacy. What is an appalling idea if I were the spy is perfectly acceptable if it is a government agency. The reason seems to be that people would not believe me that I had their well-being in mind nor (if they were trusting enough) that I could indeed ensure the safety and security I promised. They’d be absolutely right of course.

But here’s our governments doing the same thing and people accept both that it is all for our own good and that they can indeed protect us. Which is strange considering how mealy-mouthed they are about it all (nobody would want to buy a product the salesperson told them so little about). I have yet to learn even of one instance where the surveillance programmes  of our governments, rather than old-fashioned policing, did really foil an attack plan. If it the programmes were that successful you would expect the agencies to brag about it, wouldn’t you? Or at least name one good example to silence the critics.

To make matters worse, quite a bit of the measures seem curiously ill-suited for the task they claim to be designed for. Take the latest Snowden leak on the ‚DISHFIRE‚ programme for example. Does anyone anywhere truly believe terrorists would consider coordinatig an attack by texting? (OK, I know it is more about networks and contacts and suspicious behaviour). And 200 million a day? Even given the texting sprees of your average teenager that makes for a lot of targets. More than anything the idea here seems to be along the lines of ‚gobble up every last scrap of information we can get and see if cannot introduce some pre-crime policing‘.

What the ’nothing to hide‘ faction fails to understand is that, when it comes to ’security matters‘ / terrorism,  effectively our governments shifted the burden of proof to lie with us. Keeping tabs on all of us is equivalent to turning us all into suspects. And do not be misled into thinking it is just the ‚bad guys‘ that are monitored: The NSA’s ‚three hops‘ method is likely to include almost everyone. If you don’t want to do the maths yourself you can try this little tool on The Guardian website. Remember, the figure you will see is only for the people that one individual (you) connects to through the three degrees of separation. Now if we asume a conservative estimate of 50 flagged targets in the UK…

The agencies do not even have to tell you that or why they flagged you. You may land on a no-fly list (because someone you called once in the last year knows someone that called someone who is flagged a target) and never know what happened. So don’t give me that ’nothing to hide‘ crap. You may want to (re-)read this startlingly modern text by – yes, indeed – Immanuel Kant, maybe that will get you out of, if not your self-incurred tutelage maybe at least your current complacency.

Or you could just carry on as you were, and I go and swot up on my origami: Hats are a lot trickier to make with tin foil than with paper…

September ever since

September 11th has changed the world. The memory of the horror of the attacks in the very heart of the US is branded on humanity’s minds. Most of us will never forget what we witnessed (and television made us all into witnesses), where we were, what we did when it happened. If we take a moment we may feel that even now, almost twelve years later, our thoughts, our hearts, and if we be religious, our prayers go out to those lost, and those bereaved.
But, sadly, to take that moment is becoming increasingly more difficult these days.
It is more difficult because we, as citizens of the ‚western world‘, have reacted badly to the terrible tragedy that befell us on that day in September 2001. In our pain and our anger we allowed our world to be changed by our very pain and anger – and our fear. Contrary to what the former President George W. Bush told us in an Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People on 20th September 2001 the reaction of governments throughout the western world were, and to this day are, more on the side of fear than of freedom, more on the side of cruelty than of justice. Our world has changed. But many of these changes were our own doing.

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby becomes a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
(F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146)

Fighting ‚monsters‘, governments throughout the western world are in the most immediate danger of turning into monsters themselves: In the name of freedom they cut away on our civil rights; in the name of safety they cripple our freedom; in the name of justice they wage wars and kill off ‚potential threats‘. Maybe they are acting like overly-protective parents, maybe in the struggle they have lost their bearings, maybe Nietzsche’s warning applies – but make no mistake: this is a well-meaning reading of the text. Take away but an ounce of benevolence and the outlook is much grimmer.

The western world is locked in a war that has been called a “task that does not end”. A war against terror, they call it –  Is it just me or does that sound a bit paradoxical?
Is it locked in this war, because some simple minds that happened to be in power that fateful day in September honestly believed that terror could be countered with violence? Is it locked in this war, because human justice is only ever about revenge? Because an eye for an eye is the only way we understand justice?
Can we really be so blind as to not see that war is itself just that: terror?

Ask the mothers and fathers who lost their sons and daughters in the terror of 9/11,
ask the brothers and sisters of those who perished,
ask husbands and wives bereaved,
ask sons and daughters orphaned
if the blood that was shed in their name helped dry a single tear.
Revenge cannot compensate loss. As Emily Dickinson so rightly wrote:

To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it –
Block it up
With Other – and ‚twill yawn the more –
You cannot solder an Abyss
With Air.

Here we are then: The great theme here should be that of loss, loss and how we handle it. Loss, by it’s very nature, means we cannot ‚insert the thing that caused‘ the gap. That thing is gone, lost to us for ever. And the gap, the abyss it leaves yawns. We will have to learn to (re)build our lives around it. It is a painful task. We handled it badly. We lashed out.

What I find, well, disturbing is the number of people who openly or silently condone the chosen direction. Of course, opposition to the American stance on terrorism was construed as anti-Americanism from the very beginning. Maybe President Bush saw to that, when he declared that you could either be with America or with the terrorists. But what is that supposed to mean: ‚anti-Americanism‘. Disagreeing with the chosen course of any given government, does not make me anti-American (or anti-British, or anti-What-ever-land for that matter). I can admire the undoubtedly great achievements, both cultural and political, of that great nation and still disagree with a government decision, can’t I. But the label is meant to imply that I can’t: The label anti-American is the deliberate and somewhat crafty conflation of very different things: carrying dissenting political views on the one hand and hatred of America and Americans as such on the other. Implying a hatred of everything American, of the Americans themselves, the label anti-American is shaped into a weapon to discredit anyone and everyone that dare criticise the chosen course: Either you are with us, and with us all the way, or you are against us. Either you agree or you are supporting terrorism. Either you are good, or you are evil. If you are labelled anti-American, you are not worth listening to, all your arguments are automatically discarded.
I take umbrage at such treatment. And still that does not make me anti-American.
Well, then. If you would humour me a little longer…

When we see them call back the dogs now, we must not think it is to end this ‚endless task‘. But their barking has disturbed many and the pack grew weary – so now they’ll hunt with hawks instead. Those birds are called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as “drones”. The new master falconer, President Barak Obama – the very man that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, savour the irony – makes extensive use of them. According to statements from Sen. Lindsey Graham and others in February 2013 at least 4700 were killed by US UAVS – and the context of his remarks suggests that this might only count CIA -led attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia – regions, I might add, outside the declared combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.
These ’nonbattlefield targeted killings‘ are frequently carried out as pre-emptive strikes – people are killed before the crime they are believed to have planned is committed. Pre-emptive justice. Swift justice. No charge, no trial, just the sentence. To me and many others this is a strange kind of justice, one we want no part in. This reeks of cruelty, not justice.

But all this is relatively far away from our homes and thus it is easily painted over with talk of the ‚just cause‘. Well, let us take it somewhere a lot closer to home – into our very homes, in fact:
Let’s start simple: Compare travelling abroad at the turn of the millennium with what it is now. A flight from the US to anywhere in Europe, say. If it were only the much more rigid security checks you are submitted to, you might shrug it off. Aye, let them search for guns or explosives, we all want to come down to earth in one piece. But it is not just that, of course. Every detail of your flight is recorded. How you booked, how you paid, where you sit, what meal you choose (do try the bacon: avoiding pork might get you flagged as a potential threat – not kidding here). Asthmatics had better be sure to manage an eight-hour flight (plus several hours in security) without their meds, because they will not be allowed to carry them… Is this on the side of freedom? Well, I smell fear. Can you smell it yet? Then let me take you into your home:

Under ‚anti-terrorist legislation‘ security and law-enforcement agencies throughout the western world have been granted the freedom (and an exceptional range of tools) to invade your privacy. They probably know you are reading this text. Maybe, if my ravings here have been flagged already (and I certainly would not put it beyond them), they are working on a dossier on you this very moment. They know who you called on the phone and who called you (and when, and for how long). They can and may read all your email. And let’s be honest: It did not take an Edward Snowden to tell us. It was obvious from the start. Give them the instruments for total surveillance and they will use them. If surveillance is your job, that is what you do. The only thing mildly surprising might be the scale of it.
Of course, you may tell me that you do not have anything to hide. Well, do you seal your letters? Do you close the bathroom door when you go to take a leak? Like you, I have nothing illegal to hide. It does not follow, however, that I want to share my entire life with everyone, or feel comfortable knowing some government agent could be snooping around in my private life right now. Now do you smell the fear? Well, it certainly does not smell of freedom.

Now follow me out into the streets.
Under the diverse (counter-)terrorism acts in the UK and elsewhere your rights to free speech and freedom of information have been severely hurt. Go to any demo with a camera. If things get rough between protesters and police try to capture it on film. Chances are, you’ll get banged up for obstruction. Or, if you’re really unlucky, someone throws something like section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000 (Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 sect 76) at you:

elicit[ing] information about an individual who is or has been—
(i)a member of Her Majesty’s forces,
(ii)a member of any of the intelligence services, or
(iii)a constable,
which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.

Now you’re in trouble, because that could mean up to ten years inside.
Absurd and unlikely? Not entirely. While it is (as yet) unlikely you would actually be tried under any such law, you may be held and searched and thus effectively be kept from exercising your right to peaceful protest. And these things have happened. Even to British MPs .

What is in jeopardy here and everywhere in the world is nothing less than the universality of human rights. Among the human rights in danger are the articles 9, 10, 11, 12, 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights if you are a citizen of the so-called liberal west; if you are unlucky enough to be a citizen of one of the combat zones, declared or undeclared, of this ‚war on terror‘ add articles 3 and 5 to the list.

The underlying rationale seems to be something along the lines of: ‚Mark someone a terrorist and human rights do not apply‘. And that is exactly where we go astray. Human rights hold for everyone: even the cruellest of killers, even the worst terrorists. They might not abide by them, but we have to. If we were to claim any kind of moral high ground, we have to. And if we sacrifice our notion of freedom and of justice in this struggle, we lose all we are trying (if inadequately) to defend.
We have to learn to go about this differently. We have to understand that we cannot defend our values by sacrificing them one for the other. And we have to consider the possibility that it is our actions more than our values that earn us the hatred of others. Suicide bombing is an act of desperate outrage. It is the weapon of a cornered opponent. Our best ‚weapon‘ in any struggle against terrorism would then be to alleviate the suffering of people, especially in the Middle East. A truth that Israel’s government should learn to accept as well (and again, this is criticising a policy, not anti-Semitism). Desperate people will always be more susceptible to the sermons of the preachers of desperate means.

If anything, recent conflicts should have taught us a lesson in humility. We cannot bomb problems away. We cannot dictate a peoples course to happiness and prosperity. We will have to accept, that their idea of a good society might differ from ours. In time, they may learn to like some of our ways. In time we might learn to understand theirs. It may be good to remember that it took a generation at least until democratic principles had taken root in post-war Germany. As hard as it seems, we will have to have patience as well.

September 11th has changed the world. In many ways it has been September ever since. It is time we buried our dead – and moved on.

a face in the mirror

screaming to consciousness
re-born, but nor refreshed –
end another night – endless,
yet it slipped away –
granting it’s gift only in leaving;
too little balm on too many wounds

rising to face
the day-time monsters
i see myself give a smile
to the face in the mirror –
grey and hollow, dust on it’s lips –
first smile it had in weeks

calm now, ignoring
the leaden weight on everything
i shake off the dust – brush away
the leaves and spiders –
helpless to stop it from taking over
i allow the beast to rise

(i know that smile, seen it before)

all those days i have screamed,
raged inside my prison walls,
called for your help – release me!
all those nights trapped inside myself
locked in with the demon
the walls too thick for you to hear

my fight has worn me out,
broken my resistance  –
i know that smile, seen it before –
now that the beast rises
how can i hope to tame it –
how can i hope not to fall?