There are certain things you grow accustomed to attending hacker gatherings. For one, almost everyone has placed a sticker across their mobile phone or computer camera. To the average person, that sticker is a cyber-age foil hat. But if you knew what they knew, you'd be covering up too.
The thing is though, we do know. Or at least we know what's very likely. In this post-Snowden era everyone more or less understands the mass surveillance is being undertaken by government agencies. Up until now though, we couldn't easily tell if we were personally under the spotlight.
In the global community of hackers and cyber experts, information security is such a concern that you quickly feel you'd be mad not to start encrypting all your emails and voice calls to ensure they are protected from anyone "listening in". One beer into a round of post-conference drinks and you hear things that sound like they are coming from a sci-fi film.
We all know intuitively that a mobile phone is a tracking device. But few people are aware how advanced and relatively cheap spying technology has become. Nor how prevalent is it. One of the problems is we can't see it. That's one of the reasons Amnesty, together with a group of security researchers and other human rights and privacy organisations, has launched a new tool, 'Detekt', which allows people to scan their computer to see if it has been infected by specific pieces of known spyware. This tool is hardly anything approaching a parity of arms, but it is a step in the fight back for ordinary people. It's like chucking talcum powder over an invisible burglar.
While they keep their business dealings quiet, the companies selling surveillance equipment are not doing it completely out of sight. With the right credentials you can easily walk into a surveillance trade show and see what's being sold.
You will be met with the smiley face of an advertising exec in a slick suit telling prospective customers about the latest product for tracking somebody's every move, so you can know precisely where they are, who they're with and what they're saying.
It's 1984 in 2014. And they're not even being coy about it.
The real-world consequences of this equipment being used are insidious and frightening. Especially when used by governments with appalling human rights records, to target activists and journalists. By letting this out of control market operate without proper oversight, the UK and other governments are selling peaceful dissidents and activists in countries like Ethiopia and Bahrain down the river. In many countries, unlawful surveillance can lead to hefty prison sentences, torture, or worse, simply for holding views which are disagreeable to the state.
Tech has developed faster than law. We clearly need our governments to pay attention to the market in surveillance technologies. At the moment there are no robust protections to stop companies selling this software to governments we know are using it to violate human rights. Amnesty thinks similar checks and balances should be applied to the sale of surveillance equipment as to arms sales. To an opposition activist, these tools can be no less lethal.
'Detekt' is not the answer to the daunting and growing problem of unlawful government surveillance. But it is another small step on the road. Big brother is watching. At least in some cases, we can now see what he's looking at.Suggest a correction