The long-term risk of surveillance laws - TechCentral

The long-term risk of surveillance laws

Did you hear the latest gaffe from government? They want to monitor your WhatsApp messages. The fools! Everyone knows you can’t do that. For one thing, there’s just too much of it. For another, a lot of private communication is now encrypted.

From Turkey to Hong Kong to Zambia, attempts to curtail or censor social media have failed. Even in China, where Weibo services fill the vacuum of Twitter and WeChat is king of instant messengers, authorities struggle to suppress speech online.

For one thing, so much content is generated by social media users that nobody can stay ahead, right? At least one former executive from America’s National Security Agency admitted spooks can’t keep up with the glut of information they harvest.

And let’s not forget encryption. Some less enlightened politicians want to introduce “legal” backdoors to systems. This is so obviously dumb: a backdoor is a backdoor, and if the authorities can use it to gain access, so can criminals. The potential for abuse is far too real.

Many might argue that new surveillance laws – being introduced in countries around the world – aren’t really a problem because they are impractical. After all, analysing all our tweets and private chats is nigh impossible, right?

Wrong. Such capability only requires two things.

The first is machine learning. Consider “non-linearity”. Simply put, this is the idea that things expand exponentially. You can start with a small number and, by doubling it at every step, you reach astounding numbers in just a few dozen jumps or less.

This is noteworthy because it expands our quantitative skills far beyond what our minds or even our best previous technologies could comprehend, let alone manage. Try manipulating a sextillion – a one with 21 zeroes — on a calculator. Or a googol: that’s 100 zeros. We can’t, not without unbelievable effort (and in some cases, not at all).

But for machine learning of sufficient girth, thanks to the cheap power of servers, it will soon be as easy as falling off a log. So, don’t think snoops can’t handle all the data.

Encryption is a different story… until quantum computers prove their worth. The argument from experts is that these machines will render most encryption useless. The NSA is already funding a project to build a quantum system that can crack most current encryption. Quantum computers are still some way off, but will almost certainly be practical and even commercially available in the coming years.

Like a dodgy meal, bad laws have a way of coming back to haunt us. In the early 2000s, the US government passed several surveillance laws under the auspice of keeping the country safe from terrorists. Back then, many warned that such laws could be subject to future abuse outside their original intentions. A decade or so later, the Edward Snowden revelations showed that is exactly what has happened.

So, we should never disregard new legislation because it’s impractical to enforce today; it might be tomorrow. Sure, it’s fine to laugh at paranoid lawmakers and their futile (for now) attempts to monitor your electronic conversations. But they have the will, and where there’s a will there’s very often a way. All they lack today are the right tools to do the job.

If we allow governments to make bad laws today, they’ll use those bad laws in bad ways tomorrow.

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