Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Disturbing privacy violations

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Some selected quotes from very disturbing news article :

Muhammad Rabbani*, a director of Cage*, convicted of obstructing counter-terrorism police when stopped at Heathrow

*I have no idea what positions Rabbani and Cage take, or whether they are worthy of support in general. No such support should be implied from this post—what I do support is Rabbani’s right to keep his privacy from a government that discards human rights.

The international director of the campaign group Cage has been found guilty of obstructing counter-terrorism police by refusing to hand over his mobile phone and laptop passwords.

The verdict confirms that police have powers in port stops under schedule seven of the 2000 Terrorism Act to demand access to electronic devices, and refusal to cooperate is a criminal offense.

This is a gross violation of the rights of privacy, especially privacy from snooping governments, that everyone should have. Cf. e.g. a previous article on the topic or a similarly themed satire post.

This type of password demands are absolutely absurd, starting with the fact that there is no particular reason why someone crossing the border* of a country should be exposed to deeper checks than someone currently residing within the same country**. The situation is not analogous to a regular baggage check, because what is stored on a device cannot blow a plane up, cannot be used to perform a hi-jacking, cannot be stabbed in the eye of a flight attendant, …

*Or e.g. traveling domestically.

**Rabbani appears to have been returning to the U.K. In other words, even a highly dubious attempt to filter out “unwanteds” based on device contents would have been misplaced in this specific case.

There is, in fact, very little to gain through such checks and there is virtually no legitimate reason why a check should take place—even assuming that the intrusion on the rights of the passengers/citizens/whatnots were tolerable. Barring an even more unethical installation of malware for the purpose of spying on the device owner in the long term, the most that can be achieved in suitably short time-frame is to briefly look at the device owners emails, desktop files, or similar—and this is not something that e.g. a member of a terrorist organization or organized crime should reasonably fall for. Anything that could have been of legitimate interest can be expected to be too well hidden; what can be found is highly private information that is no business of the government’s whatsoever (e.g. who had a vacation affair with whom—not to mention the whole “intimate picture” problem).

No, in order to have a reasonable chance of finding something legitimate (barring unethical malware…), the device would be needed for several hours or a full copy has to be made—which in turn can take hours and possesses extreme risks where private data is concerned (e.g. through inadvertent leaks). With a proficient hider of information, the hours go into days, might require a specialist in computer forensics, and possibly still turn out to be in vain. If in doubt: Should the government have a high hit ratio, the conclusion of those who have something to hide would be to not carry the information past such check-points… (Instead keeping it in one place and e.g. distributing copies per i2p when needed.)

To boot, such demands for passwords can also violate the rights of third-parties or force the device owner to violate contractual obligations. Consider e.g. the case of a work laptop or the utterly insane idea that people traveling past customs should be obliged to give out their social-media passwords.

This is the type of thing where the public should legitimately take to the streets and demand that their rights and interests are respected—very much unlike e.g. the protests against Donald Trump. (Cf. e.g. a recent post.) Even comparing with his country-based restrictions on visitors, this is an outrage: The country-based restrictions serve a legitimate purpose and can have some success in achieving this purpose; this type of snooping, on the other hand, is useless. The former only rarely infringe on the reasonably expected rights of others*; the latter does so whole-sale.

*We can discuss whether entirely free movement should be allowed, but the fact remains that it is not. A great many countries reserve the right to refuse people entry, and even restrictions based on e.g. country of origin are quite common, and this has been the norm historically. The increasingly free movement we see today is as big a novelty as modern day governmental snooping—outside of dictatorships. Exceptions where a reasonably expected right would be violated occur e.g. when a foreigner residing in the U.S. is refused re-entry after visiting his home country. (Which is a possible outcome of Trump’s suggestions, at least according to his opponents.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

September 25, 2017 at 10:14 pm

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