June 30, 2008

FRA and Dog Poo

Operated by who?

If I have to choose, I will stand with the libertarians. Even though I am standing in dog poo.
Spy cameras: We are paranoid, but they're still out to get us | Alice Miles - Times Online

Alice Miles makes some salient observations about the UK authorities use of surveillance:

It is the covert surveillance that has got everybody's goat. And the reason that covert surveillance annoys people is that we have become paranoid. We assume that Britain is filled with petty, vindictive bureaucrats with hidden powers over our lives, who are “out to get us”.

There is a coalescence of outrage around rubbish spies and bin taxes, around distant bureaucracy and speed cameras and parking fines; around the myriad ways that the State can intrude upon one's life without warning and force you to pay to make it go away again. And never be forced to explain itself.

This paranoia is understandable. The State doesn't answer the phone to you but it does have the power to threaten and bully you, to make you pay or to threaten your credit rating with a county court judgment - even though, if it would only listen to you, you are being perfectly reasonable.

I think this is exactly the answer to the opinion piece from Ingvar Åkesson, the director general of FRA this week where he, in a tone of injured friendliness, argues that his agency and the law giving it more power have been misunderstood all along. They are not meant to spy on Swedish citizens, just those misty threats out there. Like the activities of foreign nations - which of course make eminently tradeable intelligence information. Åkesson cannot understand how these paranoid delusions came about that FRA aims at spying on everybody - that is not the point of the organisation.

But what the protesting citizens are protesting against isn't international intelligence gathering, it is the very likely mission creep. If there is a tool to gather information that could be used for something constructive, it is unlikely it will remain unused for this purpose. In the US anti-drug policing gets snuck into anti-terrorism programs. In the UK the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000 gave 9 organisations the right to authorise surveillance. Today 786 organisations have that right, including the ambulance service and local authorities. In 2006 there were ~1000 applications per day for using these powers. The Swedish PKU registry was only intended for medical and scientific use, now it is being opened for police use while scientific use is curtailed. Swedish municipalities already hire people to spy on garbage disposal: it would likely be more efficient and cheap to use automated surveillance. Past Swedish cabinets have been involved in attempts to setting up investigations outside the legal system. And so on.

Given the experiences in the US and UK of how surveillance powers are extended and used for purposes far outside their original area, it would be foolish to assume the same process would not occur in Sweden. In particular, it would be extremely hard to monitor abuses and many could be swept under the rug with vague references to national security. This means that the system would be unaccountable and hard to influence, even when it makes serious mistakes.

What Reinfeldt, Åkesson, Bildt et al. have not understood is that the outrage they are meeting is not about the particular proposal, but that the trust credit of the Swedish government has run out. The state runs on the trust of the citizens: the main reason its commands are obeyed without coercion is that they are trusted. A government that is no longer trusted will find a the country to be far less governable: the friction of every transaction goes up. The price for finding people who do not pick up dog poo or mis-sort their garbage may be not just reduced GDP growth but political instability.

Posted by Anders3 at June 30, 2008 06:33 PM