Do as I say, not as I do (and other things our parents told us)

clip-image0026This may be quite a challenging post as I potentially expose myself as a willing victim of an Orwellian world, if not a supporter of it. Nothing could be further from the truth, but I do think certain aspects of the forthcoming argument need to be aired.

I am amazed that people are surprised and angered to hear that the US and UK governments are “spying” on their citizens. I recall as a schoolboy in Dover in the eighties seeing a large installation on the cliffs of Dover, and it was common knowledge that it was used to intercept telephone and radio signals for the government. The thought was, and still is, a comforting one that various powers-that-be are intercepting communications in a morally correct albeit secretive manner.

While the scale of the interceptions highlighted through the Snowden leaks did somewhat surprise me, the fact that it was happening did not, in fact I expected it. My surprise was  perhaps a factor of the rapid growth of the internet and the related technologies, but I was able to rationalise that with the many different methods of communications available to so many people on the planet.

I don’t agree with government back doors inside industry systems, and I don’t agree with the wholesale handing over of encryption keys to them either, but I do agree with the discrete and specific targeting of certain communications of “interest” and the decryption and handing over of those communications by the relevant company to the government in response to a valid and legal request. But it has to start with the interception, analysis, trending and prediction of traffic in the first place.

There, I said it.

We then move to the current advice being given to parents about monitoring and controlling their internet access and social media use. This type of advice is warmly embraced by most people, as one would expect, because children cannot possible be expected to know and understand the types of threats they might be exposed to on the internet, and too naïve to be able to deal with them. They do not have the experience or understanding of what could happen if they use the internet without some kind of supervision and monitoring, and as responsible parents we are there to protect, educate and support.

I think there is a parallel here, namely that the general population simply does not understand the kind of threats that are out there, and how monitoring communications and the internet is a fundamental way of ensuring that we don’t find out the hard way. There has to be a certain level of trust in the various government bodies that the monitoring is done for specific purposes, in the same way a child will have a level of trust that a parent monitoring contacts and online activity is doing so not to harm the child but to protect them from needless abuse and worse.

This parallel is not a clear one I understand; there have been abuses of power, and the politics of government is a dirty business at the best of times, but I pay taxes and participate in my community for the benefit of the greater good and therefore expect a certain level of protection from the powers that be. I chose to live in a somewhat paternalistic society because it benefits me and I get to enjoy a largely violence free lifestyle as a result.

Were you surprised by these revelations? Angered or resigned to them? I will continue to encrypt my most personal of data and practise good information security next time i do my banking in a Starbucks; not to protect myself from the government but from the criminals. I will leave the criminals to the government.

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About Thom Langford

An information security professional, award winning security blogger and industry commentator. Available as a speaking head and presenter on topics relating to information security, risk management and compliance.

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