My latest Guardian column is “The problem with nerd politics,” and it discusses the twin evils of “nerd determinism” and “nerd fatalism” — both convenient excuses for people who care about technology policy to avoid politics.
In “nerd determinism,” technologists dismiss dangerous and stupid political, legal and regulatory proposals on the grounds that they are technologically infeasible. Geeks who care about privacy dismiss broad wiretapping laws, easy lawful interception standards, and other networked surveillance on the grounds that they themselves can evade this surveillance. For example, US and EU police agencies demand that network carriers include backdoors for criminal investigations, and geeks snort derisively and say that none of that will work on smart people who use good cryptography in their email and web sessions.
But, while it’s true that geeks can get around this sort of thing – and other bad network policies, such as network-level censorship, or vendor locks on our tablets, phones, consoles, and computers – this isn’t enough to protect us, let alone the world. It doesn’t matter how good your email provider is, or how secure your messages are, if 95% of the people you correspond with use a free webmail service with a lawful interception backdoor, and if none of those people can figure out how to use crypto, then nearly all your email will be within reach of spooks and control-freaks and cops on fishing expeditions.
What’s more, things that aren’t legal don’t attract monetary investment. In the UK, where it’s legal to unlock your mobile phone, you can just walk into shops all over town and get your handset unlocked while you wait. When this was illegal in the US (it’s marginally legal at the moment), only people who could navigate difficult-to-follow online instructions could unlock their phones. No merchant would pay to staff a phone-unlocking role at the corner shop (my dry-cleaner has someone sitting behind a card-table who’ll unlock any phone you bring him for a fiver). Without customers, the people who make phone-unlocking tools will only polish them to the point where they’re functional for their creators. The kind of polish that marks the difference between a tool and a product is often driven by investment, markets and commercialism.