Fragment – Breaking Enigma Was Only Part of the Story…

Reading Who, me? They warned you about me? on ethics associated with developing new technologies, this quote jumped out at me: [m]y claim is that putting an invention into a public space inevitably makes that invention safer (Mike Loukides, December 7, 2017).

In recent years, the UK Government had several goes at passing bills that referred to the collection of communications data, the who, where, when and how of a communication but not its content .

[N]ot its content.

Many folk are familiar with stories of the World War Two codebreakers, the boffins, Alan Turing among them, who cracked the German enigma code. How they helped win the war by reading the content of enemy communications.

So given it was the content wot won it, we, cast as “enemies”, might conclude that the protecting the content is key. That the communications data is less revealing.

But that’s not totally true. Other important intelligence can be derived from traffic analysis, looking at communications between actors even if you don’t know the content of the messages.

If I know that X sent a message to Y  and Z five minutes before they committed a robbery on several separate connections, I might suspect that X  knew Y and Z, and was implicated in the crime, even if I didn’t know about the content of the messages.

Location data can also be used to draw similar inferences. For example, the Bloomberg article Mobile-Phone Case at U.S. Supreme Court to Test Privacy Protections describes a recent US Supreme Court case reviewing an appeal from a convicted armed robber who was in part convicted on the basis of evidence that data obtained from [his] wireless carriers to show he was within a half-mile to two miles of the location of four  … robberies when they occurred.

So what has this to do with “putting an invention into a public space”? Perhaps if the stories about how military intelligence made and makes use of traffic analysis and location analysis, and not just the content of decrypted messages, the collection of such data may not seem so innocuous…

When invention takes place in public, we (the public) know that it exists. We can become aware of the risks. Mike Loukides, December 7, 2017.

Just sayin’…

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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