Reactions to the appalling murder of the staff at Charlie Hebdo have been, shall we say, mixed. The culprits have been chased down and shot, which is only as it should be. Millions of people and dozens of world leaders have turned out in support. The first issue published since the attack sold out immediately - and the print run has been scaled up from sixty thousand to five million to meet demand.
Meanwhile, major media outlets reporting on the events have taken great care to censor the images of the cartoons at the centre of all this, which makes one think that they have forgotten what journalism is. Pope Francis has said "One cannot make fun of faith." Which is odd, because it's actually pretty easy. And the usual assemblage of useful idiots has come crawling out of the woodwork to say "Of course I support freedom of speech, but -" To paraphrase Robert Heinlein's character Lazarus Long:
The correct way to punctuate a sentence that starts: "Of course I support freedom of speech, but -" is to place a period after the word "but." Don't use excessive force in supplying such a moron with a period. Cutting his throat is only a momentary pleasure and is bound to get you talked about.
But - sorry.
In all this the most shameful response so far - and I hope the most shameful response ever - has been that of British Prime Minister David Cameron.
And let me now address very directly this issue of how we have the right legal framework to intercept the communications of potential terrorists. There are two issues here. One is what is called communications data. That is not the content of a phone call; it is just who made which call to which person, and when. As everybody knows, this vital communications data is absolutely crucial, not just in terrorism, but in finding missing people; it's vital in murder investigations; it's used in almost every single serious crime investigation.
And what matters, in simple terms, is that we can access this communications data whether people are using a fixed phone, a mobile phone, or more modern ways of communicating via the internet. We have already legislated in this parliament to safeguard this vital data, because it was under threat from a particular European directive. But it is important in the future that we make sure we can get this data when people are using the more modern forms of communication that are being made possible through the internet. So that is one piece of additional legislation that will be necessary.
The second thing, which is more contentious, is about accessing the content of a telephone call, or another form of communication. And here again the same problem exists. Will we be able to access the content as the internet and new ways of communicating develop?
Now I have a very simple principle to apply here, which should be at the heart of the legislation that will be necessary. The simple principle is this:
In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people, which, even in extremis, with a signed warrant from the Home Secretary personally, that we cannot read?
Now, up until now, governments of this country have said no; we must not have such a means of communication.
That is why, in extremis, it's been possible to read someone's letter. That is why, in extremis, it's been possible to listen in to someone's telephone call. That is why the same applies with mobile communications.
Now, let me stress again, this cannot happen unless the Home Secretary personally signs a warrant. We have a better system for safeguarding this very this very intrusive power than probably any other country I can think of.
But the question remains, are we going to allow a means of communication where it simply isn't possible to do that?
And my answer to that question is no we must not.
(I couldn't find a transcript of this speech online, so I transcribed it myself. I apologise for any errors I may have introduced.)
Now there are a number of things I need to say about this. In order:
Mr Cameron, you have no right to dictate the means of communication available to the British public.
My outrage at your position is only slight tempered by the fact that you have no power to dictate the means of communication available to the British public. Encryption is mathematics, and you cannot legislate mathematics.
You seem to believe that all you need to do is contact a small number of major companies and insist that they install back doors in their software for your spies, and that will be the end of it. If that is indeed your belief, then, Mr Cameron, you have been quite remarkably poorly advised, and should fire everyone, immediately.
First, back doors in communications systems are security breaches. Security breaches get exploited. That's simply what happens. Those major companies are not going to talk to you.
Second, any competent programmer can deploy an unbreakably secure communications system in a day. Making it user-friendly, making it attractive, making it scale, making the idiot users select sane passwords, those are the hard problems. Encryption we've solved.
To actually implement your proposed legislation would mean prohibiting computers from the United Kingdom entirely. Not even North Korea has gone that far.
The first duty of any government is to keep our country and our people safe.
No, Mr Cameron. The first duty of any government is to not become a threat to the very people it serves. All else comes after that.
If you read the United States' Bill of Rights, you will notice that it does not specify what the government can do. It specifies what the government cannot do. It says, Congress shall make no law...
George Orwell wrote us a powerful warning in 1984. Mr Cameron, what he was warning us about was you. Orwell didn't warn us against attackers from outside, but against our own principles leading us into disaster. The death of the soul of a nation comes not from invasion, but from a thousand cuts to the freedom of its people.
Even the NSA, in its blatant breaches of fundamental human rights and the US Constitution, had the grace to be embarrassed, and to carry out its acts in secret.
That you could even present your position in public tells the world that something is very, very rotten in the state of Britain.
Mr Cameron, you are not just taking the first steps down the road to fascism; you are standing on fascism's doorstep, leaning on the bell, peering in the window to see if anyone is home.
There is still time to step back. But the sand is running out of the hourglass very quickly.
George Orwell wrote us a powerful warning in 1984.
Wait....so you're saying that
the ending of that book was not supposed to be interpreted as a happy one?
I'm glad to see that there is another that agrees with me on this point of literary criticism, but I'm not sure that the opinion is shared by many of our leaders or the Parson's wanaabe's who serve them.
...you cannot legislate mathematics.
Well...they can certainly muck things up in the attempt.....
Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution is a list of things the government is permitted to do, and Amendment X says that the list is comprehensive and complete.
Unfortunately, no one important pays much attention to that any more, and the US government does all kinds of things these days that don't really fall under anything in that list except for the astoundingly flexible "interstate commerce" clause.
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