June 12, 2008

Wiretapping and Regression to the Political Mean

Sveavägen surveillanceInslag.se makes a good point about the Swedish FRA bill that will give military intelligence the right to intercept internet traffic and phone calls that passes through Sweden (and has privacy advocates, Google and plenty of other people up in arms). While there will be an oversight board giving permission for interception and trawling (set up by the cabinet), the cabinet and its administration do not require any permission from anybody else for using interception.

The blog points out that the key problem is the assumption that this is OK since the cabinet is reliable and good. You cannot entirely trust all government agencies, but the cabinet is 100% reliable. But this suffers from the fallacy that this will always be true: the foreseeable future is much shorter than we expect, and we do not have any idea of what future governments will be like. Worse, given data retention policies our current digital actions will be subjected to this unknown future government.

Do we have any reason to think future government could be worse? I think both history and statistics support this. Sweden had compulsory sterilization laws until 1976. During the cold war the official neutrality policy was actually false. The cabinet helped set up an illegal intelligence agency and did its best to cover it up in the 70's. In the late 80's government ministers were involved in setting up private investigations outside the legal system (which was revealed when smuggling of illegal wiretapping equipment came to light). And so on. This shows that even in the relatively clean Swedish government circles there has been misuse of power, a desire to gain information without oversight and to cover it up, and morally dubious actions possibly sincerely motivated by "public good".

If one believes current Swedish government to be better than the past average, then one should also accept the risk of regression towards the mean: if one is at an unusually good position one should expect near future states to be more likely less good states. One should expect better states only if one believes government has a steady *and certain* trend towards improvement.

It is also worth considering how moral values change over time. We are often amused or horrified by the morality of people in the past - just as they would regard our morality as corrupt (allowing women to vote? IVF?! allowing government to read people's letters?!!) and lacking in important values (what about honor today?) This means that future governments will likely be guided by values we currently would find deplorable or abhorrent. Data retention means our current actions will be judged by them, and we might very well be held legally responsible for doubting climate change, eating meat or being atheists.

All in all, past experience (as well as current events in the US) show that the wiretapping law is too risky. It will almost certainly be misused. But from the perspective of Parliament it is unproblematic: they know they are nice people who will not misuse it.

I'm not automatically against allowing government agencies to snoop. But their intrusion abilities must be balanced by equal or larger levels of accountability and transparency. If there was automatic logging of *every* snooping and the people involved, as well as an independent agency that checked *both* the intelligence agencies and the cabinet, *and* eventual public disclosure, then the law might be OK.

Posted by Anders3 at June 12, 2008 11:40 AM