The Metadata 'Blackmail Machine' At The Heart Of Britain's Digital Policy Deficit

Beyond The Ballot is The Huffington Post UK's alternative take on the General Election, taking on the issues too awkward for Westminster. It focuses on the unanswered questions around internet freedom, mental health and housing. Election news, blogs, polls and predictions are combined with in-depth coverage of our three issues including roundtable debates, MP interviews and analysis

David Davis has a problem. The Tory heavyweight and 2005 leadership contender who was once the face of opposition to ID cards has now focused the full force of his influence on digital freedom, privacy and surveillance.

The thing is, everyone knew what an ID card was. But when it comes to digital freedom and surveillance, his problem is getting David Cameron, Theresa May, and the majority of parliament, to even comprehend what he is talking about.

Politicians, to put it bluntly, don’t understand the internet. And he is palpably correct. This has been a Parliament where the prime minister suggested he might ban Snapchat, where disastrous and ineffective ‘opt-in’ porn legislation was introduced, and where it emerged a Baroness who sits on the Lords technology committee thought Google Maps kept a camera trained on her home address.

“You have the Home Secretary actually saying things like telephone metadata is just the same as your phone bill,” Davis railed in his Portcullis House office. “I can’t imagine she’s telling fibs, so she plainly doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

Davis, 66, blames the glaring lack of any discussion of digital issues at the election by politicians or the media on a “grotesque misunderstanding about it, mostly by people over 40… [they] don’t understand how intrusive the powers are. Most of my colleagues are ignorant of where this is, and where it’s going.”

One of the most famous examples Davis can give is the knee-jerk pledge by Cameron to ban all kinds of communication that the government cannot access, immediately drawing references to the photo sharing service Snapchat.

“The prime minister talked about ‘banning encryption’,” Davis said. “For everyone? For banks? Suddenly British banking would vanish. Encryption for online sales? All of your Amazon communication has to be encrypted, obviously.

“So say it’s OK for commerce. Then what about an Egyptian human rights activist - ban it for him? In which case lots of people will be executed in the Middle East, by their various states. OK, so ban it apart from for commerce and for the Middle East. It becomes just ridiculous.”

But Davis is worried that such slip-ups are telling, of the “reflex reactions of political elites - just ‘ban it!’

“It is the reaction of a stone age man to the combustion engine.”

And politicians should be warned that heavy-handedness, and a perceived nonchalance over privacy issues can go wrong for anyone, especially former members of the Bullingdon Club, he said. “There will be an incident where a person has picture of them drunk or smoking a spliff on someone else’s Facebook page, not even on their own page. And an employer will find it via facial recognition technology.

“Does this mean you can’t have a youth, you have to act responsible from the age of 10? It’s bonkers, and when you put it in those terms to the prime minister, he’s obviously had his own problems from his youth, so he would back us on that.”

Professor Ross Anderson, the University of Cambridge’s head of Cryptography and a close associate of Davis, once quipped that his best PhD students can earn a starting salary of £25,000 at GCHQ, or earn $200,000 a year, straight from university, in Silicon Valley. But the problem with attracting the best technologists for more patriotic endeavours goes deeper than money. “In California, they might one day run, or even own the company. They’ll never run GCHQ, because they don’t have PPE [the subject often frequently studied by British prime ministers at Oxbridge, including David Cameron],” Davis said.

“That tells you so much, the technologists are not in charge, and the people who are don’t necessarily understand the technology terribly well. And it’s a reflection of British society in general.”

When Edward Snowden first disclosed the extent of the NSA and GCHQ’s mass surveillance, ‘metadata’ began to enter the popular lexicon, but the security services have long argued the collection of data from millions of law-abiding citizens is harmless. But telephone metadata can make it easier for security services to construct a narrative about your life than actually listening to your phone calls. It can tell them where you live, where you visit, the people you meet even if you don’t phone them, what hours you keep, what times you travel. This is valuable stuff for spies, corporations and blackmailers, Davis said.

Edward Snowden exposed the extent of the NSA and GCHQ’s mass surveillance

After the Snowden revelations in 2013, Davis made an unusual request of his initially reluctant phone provider Vodafone, requesting a year’s worth of data it held about him. The stacks of documents covered an entire padded window bench in his office, two foot deep, and recorded every call, every text, every web access, and a location reference – for every 15 minutes of his day. He published a map in the Mail on Sunday, showing his movements for a single day – 40 different records held by Vodafone over 24 hours at party conference in Manchester. “You could literally see a map of where I went. It triggers all the time, not even every time I used the phone.

“And the treaty we have with the European Union specifies that they can ask for data by name, by telephone number, by IMEI (International Mobile Station Equipment Identity) number, my face, fingerprint or DNA, or by proximity by location, or details of anyone who had spoken to me. And any European state could, the Germans or, god help us, the Slovakians. We are all tagged.”

Davis, and many others, have warned the collection of such data is a “blackmail machine”.

“If you want to find everyone who worked in Whitehall who had called the Samaritans, you could do that in nanoseconds. Everyone in the MoD who has ever called an abortion clinic, an AIDS clinic? That is before we even get to the internet.”

And when it comes to young people, who have their social lives, medical worries and innermost concerns all tapped into Google or Facebook, the data collected means it is “possible to track people’s thoughts which it has never been before - it’s a kind of science fiction.”

“The vast majority of parliament will just accept what they are told about this sort of thing. They don’t think through the consequences or the complexity.”

For many campaigners in this realm, the answer seems to be an organised assertion of collective rights. Tim Berners-Lee, the British scientist who invented the World Wide Web, has called for a digital bill of rights, an online Magna Carta to put the ownership of the web firmly in the hands of its users, not corporations, not governments who seek to control it. Berners-Lee wants a guarantee that users private lives online will not be abused, that the internet remains independent, that access remains free and expression unrestricted, apart from what breaks the law of the land. Child pornography and bomb-making manuals were illegal before the web and should remain illegal on it, proponents of a bill of rights argue.

Davis sees the answer not in an assertion of collective rights, but in the cementing of individual ownership, which will perhaps a more problematic way of phrasing it for his fellow travellers in this field. He admits he is in the early stages of developing his thoughts, but says he is in broadly interested in “property rights for your online identity”.

“In theory, if you own your own identity, you can say to Google, ‘I want it back’, you have to delete the data you store about me. I’m a public servant so it is difficult but I could say ‘I want everything about my family to be removed’. I want my search history back.”

The idea is potentially a minefield; taking away the ownership of the data Google stores about individuals is to take away its major source of income. And like the controversial ‘right to be forgotten’ imposed on the search giant by the European Court of Justice, it could mean that public figures and criminals manipulate what data is available about them. Davis acknowledges “problems”, and repeats often throughout our conversation that he knows he is “public property”.

“But unless you are a public servant or criminal, you should have the right to control, within reason, your private data,” he insisted. “And that would be a place to start. It is simple, and it gives the power to the people to do something about it. That is the direction I would go in on that.”

Disagreements over the ‘right to be forgotten’ led to a “fun falling-out” between Davis and the founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales, he said. “He said it was terrible, and of course it is for his Wikipedia, but I think that although it is crude and it can’t go on the way it is at the moment, at least it forces Google to engage in the argument.”

The ‘right to be forgotten’ led to a “fun falling-out” between Davis and Jimmy Wales

One of Davis’ most recent battles was his victory against the Communications Data Bill, the draft legislation put out of its misery by Nick Clegg in 2013 when he declared the “snoopers’ charter” would not get the support of the Liberal Democrats. But Davis believes the spectre could rise again, and if and when it does, MPs need to be better educated.

“We have to find a mechanism to show legislators the consequences of what they are doing – we need a simulator, ha, of sorts,” he mused. “We have to demonstrate the unintended consequences. So when the legislation comes back, we will need the whole web population to rise in arms about it.”

Davis may claim another victory from the jaws of defeat over data gathering. He and Labour MP Tom Watson have been granted a judicial review of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014. “The state lied about it, which became evident [after a decision by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal which found GCHQ contravened the European Convention of Human Rights],” Davis said.

“And we have tended to believe the state in the past. You don’t like to think GCHQ are lying.”

Davis claims that MPs are in need of a parable, a future event that will demonstrate better than he ever can, about the potential damage of mass data collection. For ID cards, it was the 2007 loss of 25 million child benefit records, which swung the public from 80% in favour of the cards, to 70% against, in the course of a week.

“It was not my brilliant rhetoric. It was a single event, and these will come along again. I am in a minority at the moment but we will win. Maybe in two years, ten years, but we will win.”

Though the lack of digital literacy is a crucial issue barely touched upon in the election debate, Davis says he recognises the difficulty in legislating for such rapidly changing technology. “We are close to things that 10 years ago seemed completely impossible, Star Trek stuff – self-driving cars, voice recognition, handwriting recognition, online real time translation, facial recognition.

“They are all things thought to be intrinsically human, and now becoming within our reach. We are at the take-off point for the unimaginable. Law-making is almost impossible, because the agencies, and not unreasonably given what they want to do, they want to keep it open-ended, to cover lots of things that they didn’t think of. But keeping it open-ended makes it bloody dangerous.”

Davis says he rarely bothers to take security precautions himself, apart from “dealing with whistleblowers”, though he does “switch my phone from time to time to make it a little more difficult”.

“There is one trick, which is to be really boring, no boyfriends, no girlfriends, no frauds. My historic reputation does protect me too. I get a dozen people a day talking to me, who are all nice and all say they support what I do.”

Davis, as a politician who went so far as to quit his seat in 2008 to protest against 42 days detention, is a man you might expect to rail against the cult of beige-ness in the current crop of MPs, where only a select few have cultivated a reputation as passionate on single issues. But he said he suspected his brand of single-mindedness might “disadvantageous” for ambitious MPs. Especially ones that might seek to lead the Conservatives. The front-runners, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Michael Gove, are well-known faces, with well-known political positions.

“I can guarantee it will be someone we haven’t thought of,” Davis said of his party’s future leader. “They are the people who win, they don’t have enemies or any previous. That’s why it can be disadvantageous to be known for something.” The next question is obvious; Davis had seemed to be ruminating a potential leadership bid earlier in this parliament.

Is he going to stand? “Ha, no. I’m not.”

Davis is candid about his party’s chances on May 7th. “I have no idea, I have never known a more unpredictable election. For some reason, we are not getting political credit for the economic recovery.”

He took a pen, and scrawled a makeshift graph on the bag of a piece of scrap paper, and a line rising from minus – 45 to +25, representing British economic confidence. Then he draws a straight vertical line – the Tory share of the vote, according to polling, which wavers just a couple of points, almost completely unchanged.

“[Economic confidence] does not seem to have affected our share of the vote at all and this is normally what we win elections on, on the economy. Something is going on, and I don’t know what it is.”

Cameron needs “a vision for Britain”, Davis argued, on the lines of Ronald Reagan’s ‘shining city on a hill’ speech. The risk of negative campaigning should have been clear from the “disaster” that was the No campaign for the Scottish referendum, Davis said.

“Things actually are getting better and we need to talk it up, and mention it all the time. Not be sucked into the managerial elements of government. We’ve got wonderful liberal values as long as we hang by them. We’ve got 60 million people, and we have more power, influence and reach, and a better reputation than we have any right to expect. We are leading members of the G20, Nato, the leading member of the Commonwealth. English is the language of science, the internet, of Hollywood, of the arts, of the most important literature, of international law. This is a fabulous advantage. That should be our metaphor for Britain.”

Four weeks ago at Ukip’s spring conference in Margate, the former Tory MP Douglas Carswell quite deliberately parked his tank on Davis’ lawn, expressing a wish to make Ukip the “classic liberal” party, to steal Tory voters who align themselves with Davis’ side of the party.

“I am conceited enough to think that if you asked members of the public which out of me and him stands up for liberty and privacy, I’d probably get more votes than him,” Davis smiled. “I don’t think he’ll be able to make Ukip the classic liberal party because some of his members think exactly the opposite. I don’t like insulting other parties too much, but they have attracted, shall we say, a spectrum of people?

“I get weekly letters from people asking me to join Ukip, and even to lead Ukip. So there are obviously people in Ukip who are attracted to my package of things. But it’s never ever going to happen.”

But he called it a “clever” tactic by Carswell, because civil liberties, privacy and free expression are topics that are far from the three main parties agenda. “The leadership of the two main parties are not doing it, they are going far too far down the authoritarian path, and even the Liberals because they are bound into government and because they gave into things like secret courts, they are very muted on it.”

Davis believes there is an “electoral reward” for the party that picks up the mantle of this issue, citing polling from 2005 that put his party 25 points ahead of the Blair government on crime and five points on counter-terrorism, at the time the party was campaigning against ID cards. “You can’t claim sole ownership, but if you are the champion of it, it’s clear there is an electoral reward. The public is more liberal than you think they are. There are votes to be had here, if you take it seriously, you understand the issues and you are thoughtful.

“But the Tories can be strongest on this, no one is going to tell us we are soft on terrorism or crime. We are a party which has had a number of its ministers killed by terrorists, with attempted assassinations of two of our prime ministers. No one can say I am soft on terrorism; I have been on a death list. That’s the reason we should be the champions.”

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