私n the summer of 2013, shortly after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the surveillance capabilities of the American National Security Agency (NSA) began to appear, I had a private conversation with a former cabinet minister about the implications of the leaks. At one stage, I mentioned to him a remark attributed to a prime architect of some of the NSA systems – that they had taken the US to “a keystroke away from totalitarianism”. The MP scoffed at the idea. What I needed to remember, he told me, in that superior tone that toffs adopt when speaking to their gardeners, was that the US and the UK were “mature democracies”. In such polities, the chances of anyone coming to power who might have the inclination to use such power for sinister purposes was, 彼は言った, zero.
Three years later, the US elected Donald Trump. Five years after Trump, look around: an increasing number of democracies are now run by autocrats of various stripes. Think of Orbán in Hungary, the Law and Justice party in Poland, Duterte in the Philippines, Erdoğan in Turkey, Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil and others in Latin America. None of these autocrats has any scruples about using intelligence collected by state agencies against critics, dissidents and potential opponents. 実際には, they positively relish being just a keystroke away from totalitarian control.
そしていま, in a new twist, a gang of seventh-century religious fanatics has taken control of Afghanistan. They will be running a society whose now-departed foreign advisers had encouraged the digitisation of databases and the introduction of digital identity cards and biometrics to reduce voting and welfare fraud. “We understand,” said the US-based Human Rights First, “that the Taliban is now likely to have access to various biometric databases and equipment in Afghanistan. This technology is likely to include access to a database with fingerprints and iris scans and include facial recognition technology.” So Afghan citizens who are trying to ensure the physical safety of their families now have an additional concern: that biometric data (fingerprints, iris scans) and their own digital trails may be used by a vengeful new regime to identify them and single them out for special treatment.
Human Rights First has been doing useful work providing guidance on how Afghans can delete their digital histories. “Start with a list of what content and accounts you want to delete,” it begins. “Consider the broad categories of where your information may be stored: 1) email, 2) social media and 3) chat applications. You may find it useful to search for your own name on search engines in order to determine what information is publicly available. One way to recall where you have accounts online would be to go through your saved passwords and to carefully comb through the list there. Bottom line: be methodical and patient in your approach.” There follows detailed advice on how to delete content from Facebook, ツイッター, Signal, Telegram, Facebook Messenger and a variety of email accounts. And when you’ve done all that, it might be a good idea to follow the advice in the useful Self-Doxing Guide.
You only have to imagine doing this for yourself to realise what an arduous undertaking it would be. And it only deals with the trails you’ve left as a result of using the commercial internet services you know, love and – up to now – have trusted. But there’s nothing you can do about biometric and other personal data that’s held on the kinds of official databases that will be accessible to whatever government that happens to be in power. And what makes the Afghan case so ironic is that many of those databases were created by western advisers as part of an attempt to “modernise” society.
Which brings us back to my conversation with that former cabinet minister. At the root of his invincible complacency that it was OK for the state to monitor citizens – and to build and maintain databases of very sensitive information about them – was that it would all happen under legally accountable oversight. Underpinning that was confidence in the permanency of liberal democracy as a rock-solid system of governance. What we have learned since Snowden is that it’s actually much more fragile than we realised and that it depends on political leaders who respect norms and conventions (what Peter Hennessy famously called the “good chap” theory of governance). Those comfortable assumptions were exploded by Trump in 2016 and by Boris Johnson in 2019. And anyone who still believes the state can be trusted to respect the privacy of its citizens (または, in the case of the UK, its subjects) simply hasn’t been paying attention to what’s been going on.
Degrees of scepticism
Cambridge University Press has published a remarkable open-access academic article on how climate change deniers are changing their tunes.
EV does it
A transcript is available of a riveting expert discussion of what would be involved in making the government’s dream of a switch to electric vehicles a reality.