ACTA – Why is the Government not informing MPs about this Agreement?

TopSecretHave you heard of ACTA?  How about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement?  No?  Well, you’re probably not alone.  After all, here in the UK the Government won’t even put documents regarding the Agreement in to the House of Commons Library.   Of course, our New Labour defenders of freedom have lots of reasons for not doing this, most of them playing the ‘National Interest’ card, but one has to wonder whether that’s all there is to it.

To give you a little background, take a look at this brief outline of the provisions and process of ACTA.  Like most things that trans-national bodies come up with, they sound bland and almost useful to start with but the Devil is, as always, buried in the details.  And not buried deeply here.  The Horns and the tip of Old Nick’s tail are definitely visible!  Nominally, ACTA was put together to prevent counterfeiting and piracy of branded goods; immediately you can see that it’s beneficiaries are likely to be big corporations.  Whilst you might immediately think of dodgy Guffi handbags on the flea-market, or pirated DVDs, it also extends to less obvious things like machine parts, electronic components, drugs, etc.  In fact any copyrighted goods.  So far, sort of so good – but it also throws in sections dealing with piracy across the Internet and other aspects related to what might loosely be described as ‘means of piracy’, which is where the fun starts.

This BBC item from last yearindicates some of the concerns.  Some of the aggressive policies put forward last year against Internet pirates (or suspected pirates) here in the UK were almost certainly a product of ACTA, and the current Deep Packet Inspection trial by Virgin (whilst hitting a few legal issues) would no doubt warm the cockles of ACTA’s stony heart.  ACTA will allow for a great deal more intrusive observation by ISPs, Governmental bodies and other interested parties of our Internet traffic, will support fairly swinging penalties and because it’s a very broad-based, international agreement will have the stench of globalisation about it.  And it’s not just your Internet connection that’s of interest.  If you take your computer across international borders – in principle, ANY form of digital storage – then ACTA would permit it to be searched.  And this might easily include the SD cards in your camera, your Blackberry, your iPod.

Concerned yet?  Lots of fuss has been made about the ‘three strikes and you’re off the Net’ laws being developed in a number of countries that are likely to be signatory to ACTA when it’s finally agreed and ratified.  But that’s just the end of the process.  ACTA is the issue of concern as it legalises nothing more than wholesale invasion of privacy by private companies in to our personal lives.

It’s not just the UK Government keeping this business sub-rosa.  Here’s a Canadian take.  Fortunately, some British MPs (bless ’em) are attempting to get an Early Day motion in place to raise the issue

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised; ACTA will benefit global business first and foremost – the acolytes of massive globalisation will love it.  And such agreements are often used to bring in laws that individual Governments would probably lose power over if they tried to do it themselves.  National sovereignty and local governance once more yields to the faceless centre.

Perhaps it’s time to act up on ACTA?

Blippy – how do you feel about sharing your purchases?

credit-cardI recently commented on whether Web 2.0 had ‘jumped the shark’ in terms of strange applications, and also remarked on whether the biggest threat to online privacy was ourselves.  However, I don’t think I was prepared for Blippy – a web site that allows you to share details of products and services that you’ve bought via different routes– Amazon, iTunes, Mastercard, Visa, etc.  Now this I find very weird and, dare I say it, slightly compelling viewing.  The system was on an invite only basis until late last year, but now seems to be open to all comers.

It’s sort of like the online version of being in the check out at the local Morrisons Supermarket and peering in to the basket of the person next in the queue.  I took a look on the site and randomly selected a user.  From 5 minutes looking at their recent transactions I was able to work out that they either lived in San Francisco and had recently traveled to New York (or vice versa), that they had a baby / toddler, that they’d done some DiY recently and various other aspects of their lives based on the purchasing records that they were willing to share.

Now, there’s nothing here that falls in to the ‘blackmail’ category, and I’m quite sure that people using Blippy would keep their ‘special’ purchases off of the system, but to be honest I do find it a rather strange thing for someone to want to do.  Maybe I’m just old.  It wasn’t long ago that people were protesting about the use of RFID tags in goods to track our shopping behaviour in shopping malls; now we seem to be falling over ourselves to give the information away for free, along with the amounts spent!

The Blippy owners said last December that they weren’t yet sure how to monetise the project.  Well, I think they were being rather disingenuous because it appears that Blippy have joined forces with the people who bought you the (now scrubbed) Facebook Beacon project.  And then there’s the very direct link between the data that Blippy collects and what has been called the ‘database of intentions’ – data that allows the prediction of buying activity based on past behaviours.  You have a large collection of data on buying habits; you have an individual with a recent history of purchases; it’s a relatively trivial software process to take the individual’s list and use the collection of data to predict what other items might be of interest.  You can then contact businesses in those market sectors with what is at least a warm prospect for a sale.

Blippy is again an interesting example of how people are willing to put lots of information in to this ‘database of intentions’.  Their lack of concern about their own privacy impacts upon us all by making it easier to predict our behaviour even if we only ‘leak’ small amounts of data. 

Online Exhibitionists affect privacy for us all…

bigbrotherI came up with the title for this piece after reading this article on the BBC Website about people who the authors of a paper called ‘online exhibitionists.  The idea is that much privacy legislation is based around the idea of what levels of privacy someone can reasonably expect to have when out and about in public.  So, if we live in a world where people are relatively circumspect, photography and publication in public places is rare, then we can expect to have some right to privacy based on a reasonable expectation that you won’t be photographed.  If you’re a celebrity, then your expectation can be less because you might reasonably expect to have people taking pictures and hassling you because the nature of your work has put you in the public eye.  Right or wrong, that’s the way it’s tended to run over recent years.

Of course, with the rise of Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, everyone has effectively become a ZZ List Celebrity within their own group of friends or the town in which they live in.  In fact, it might be said that by the very act of registering an account with something like Facebook, we’re actually turning our backs on our right to privacy – and that’s wrong.  I recently covered this sort of ground in my post ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’

In my original plan for this piece, I was going to elaborate on this issue – but then a Tweet made me aware of a quote from Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook – “The Age of Privacy is Over”.  Here it is. He states that were Facebook being set up now he’d default all our privacy settings to Public.  Now, I quite like Facebook and have taken my privacy settings to a level with which I’m happy – but I can see Facebook losing users if they start regarding our lives as ‘entertainment feed’ for the real time Web.

Well, given that Zukerberg’s company rely on us letting go of a bit of privacy to communicate with each other, I can see that, in the words of Christine Keeler, ‘He would say that, wouldn’t he?’

But what has scared the bejabers out of me this morning is to see comments from some digital media folks along the lines that they feel it might be rewarding for us to ‘hide less’.  I’m sorry?  I can only imagine that those who say such things have never been on the receiving end of online stalking, have never been harassed for their sexuality expressed online, have never suffered a rock through their window from thugs because of their politics or race. 

It may appear to be ‘hiding less’ for people in the business but it can be a matter of staying alive for some.  Even when these people do not have online profiles, their privacy can be breached accidentally or deliberately by others who do.

Maybe the world of Big Brother has come 25 years late and is being self-inflicted.  Just how many people out there right now are echoing in their attitudes the final chilling words of ‘1984’:

“But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas? Not necessarily…

what-happens-in-vegasLong before it was the title of a movie, it was a fairly well known saying. 

In the UK it was more likely to be ‘What happens in Blackpool, stays in Blackpool’, or, as time passed, what happened in Estonia stays in Estonia. I was a mark of secrecy that was usually associated with the ceremonials of secret societies; it didn’t matter that you’d abseiled down Blackpool Tower naked except for a sock on your head, carrying a crate of beer and singing ‘Unchained Melody’ at 3am.  If you found your boss in flagrante delicto with Myrtle from accounts, playing strip-poker, well, that’s something you were not going to be allowed to use in blackmail.  Because of the simple, unwritten law of the hard playing world of the works outing / stag weekend / hen weekend / mate’s trip to Skegness.   

‘What happens here, stays here’.

It used to be up there with the other rules of social nicety.  Basically, if you did get up to alcohol fuelled high jinks on one of these events, you were OK.  It wouldn’t get home or back to the office (unless you contracted some social disease, got pregnant or turned up in the local  Magistrate’s Court or A&E).  You might have shown yourself to your friends and colleagues as a hypocritical, deceitful, lecherous alcoholic but you were given the ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card of the event falling under the rule of  ‘What happens here, stays here.’

Just to be serious for a moment, there are even ‘legitimate’ versions of the rule – self-development weekends, religious retreats, etc.  What happens there, stays there, unless you want to share your OWN experiences – but no one else’s.

It’s an incredibly sensible rule for the latter type of event, and to be honest I reckon it can be a reasonably sensible code of behaviour to abide by for participants in the other events mentioned above.  

And it’s a way of life and social behaviour that is slipping away.  Whenever you go out these days there will inevitably be someone taking photographs which within 30 seconds show up on Facebook.  I’m one of those people who hate having a photo taken – apart from looking 20 pounds heavier than I am, I always get photographed with a stupid expression on my face or doing something daft.  That sort of thing showing up online is OK to deal with – it’s the other stuff that gives the running commentary of what happened, who spoke to who, who sat next to whom – even for a few minutes, etc.  The minutiae of a social event that to be honest is of fuck-all relevance to anyone who wasn’t there.  Those who are there, know what happened.  Those who weren’t there, rarely need to know what happened except out of vicarious curiosity (OK…nosiness!)

I don’t necessarily want to be photographed when I’m slightly drunk at a non-work related, social event when I take a quick trip and spill drinks.  What would once have been a momentary source of amusement for all who witnessed it that you probably wouldn’t even have remembered the following day now becomes a cast in stone moment on Facebook.  If you’re REALLY unlucky and surrounded by geeks, it will also be Tweeted – which isn’t as bad as the Tweetstream is pretty ephemeral – but you get the idea.

Please people – just go back to taking and posting a nice big group photo at the beginning, share any candid snapshots between you and people who were there directly rather than through your 200 friend Facebook page, and let what happened in the pub, stay in the pub, in 2010.

Is this really to the public good?

911buildings A couple of weeks ago I came across this article in the Guardian (not my normal read, but their online media pages are useful) referring to the publication by the Wikileaks organisationof an archive of text and pager messages from 9th September, 2001, which effectively provides a narration to the terrorist attacks on New York city that day.

The archive contains text and page messages generated by both human beings and computerised systems.  Many IT systems fall back on sending pager and text messages when something goes wrong, and unsurprisingly a lot of IT systems were going wrong that day.  There were also lots of ‘tactical’ messages betweenthe emergency services, requesting people come in to work, etc.  But what I find rather distressing – and maybe I’m over-sensitive here – is that amount of private messages between normal people involved in a very abnormal situation – folks in imminent danger of death reaching out to their loved ones in the only way possible to say ‘I love you’; worried watchers of unfolding events realising that their family was in the middle of it all and asking them to get in touch; basically, an awful lot of people in extremis reaching out to family and friends with concern and to say, in some cases, Goodbye.

Now, who on Earth could consider the latter clutch of messages to be of any public interest whatsoever?  I’m honestly dismayed that Wikileaks did this.  There are soem things in this world that are just personal.  They may be of titillation value to the public, but to argue that there is any public interest value in publishing such personal messages in this way just beggars belief.  I have to say I’d be very annoyed if I found a loved one’s last message to me published for all and sundry to read without my say so.

Wikileaksdoes a lot of good work, but they need to realise that there are categories of hidden information in the world.  For the sake of argument, let’s call them Sensibly Secret, Public Interest, Private and Personal.  Sensibly Secret is stuff that’s been officially labelled as ‘secret’ for purposes of national security, and validly so.  Public Interest is stuff that is generated by our governments, local and national, our leaders, businesses, etc. that some may wish to hide but that it is genuinely in the wider public interest to ‘out’ – a government department covering up mistakes, a business hiding poor safety reports, bad public budget management, public safety, military errors that have cost the lives of our troops, etc.  Then there’s Private – things that businesses and individuals MAY wish to keep secret – the day to day details of the running of a business, or Government, which may need to be publicised or made available to others in order to ensure that no wrongdoing is taking place.  And then there’s personal; the stuff of the red-top tabloids; who Tiger Woods is sleeping with/ has slept with, whether x,y or z is gay or has a fish fetish, and private texts and emails between people facing death.

There….not perfect but not too difficult to get ones head around, is it?  Personal information may well get out in to the world but it isn’t the role of whistle blowing groups like Wikileaks to publicise it.  There are enough real, live, current Public Interest issues to chase up without becoming an electronic tabloid.