It'll all end in tears you know

I find it hard to believe that the Canadian government has given its security forces the right to jam their transmissions during the G8 summit to help stop protestors getting organised.

I find it hard to believe that in an era when we're talking about cellular networks capable of transmitting data at speeds faster than dial-up modems, when we're promoting e-commerce as a viable if not necessary activity, when cellphone penetration rates are topping out at 60% of the population, most of whom find them an everyday, can't-live-without-it device, that the Canadian government has given its security forces the right to jam their transmissions during the G8 summit to help stop protestors getting organised.

Of course, the official reason is "terrorists might use phones", but come on, who are we kidding? I've seen the protests at other G8 meetings. I've read the articles saying how they got organised using "the internet" and "mobile phones" and how that's revolutionising the revolution business. Surely this is interfering with freedom of speech, freedom to associate with whomever you want, freedom to use your phone the way your contract with your provider says you can?

Here in New Zealand during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and the APEC summit the following year, telecommunications was provided by Telecom (secure access to a fixed line network) and Vodafone (secure access via cellular) because the two were untouchable. If we ever get something like that here again the rules will be quite different, because the current government wants to introduce legislation that will make all communication networks in the land open to interception by police or security services. They'll need a warrant of one kind or another, of course, but the idea of a totally secure communication network has gone out the window.

You have to ask yourself: who does this best serve? Is it the end user, or "citizen" as they used to be called, who might one day need to call for help on their mobile phone which can then be used to track their location? Is it the police force which might want to listen in on a suspect's phone calls or track a kidnapper to their lair? Is it the government that wants to tag us all and release us back into the wild?

Should we care what the Canadians are up to? I think we probably should because we New Zealanders belong to an "old boys club" that includes all the former British colonies so long as they're white. Canada, Australia, the UK, the US and us. We're all part of Echelon, the spy network that is supposed to intercept voice traffic and which the US and Britain are being sued over by France -- of all places -- for using the information for economic advantage instead of security matters. We're also part of an international grouping of police forces that have been pushing the same barrow for some time now -- ILETS (the international law enforcement telecommunications seminar) that has been calling for the right to intercept email. Set up in 1993 by the FBI to push its universal wire-tapping capability, ILETS has been successful in its goal to introduce such laws into Europe, North America and Australasia. Our soon-to-be-enacted Crimes Amendment Bill includes provisions that could have been written by ILETS members: the exclusion of police and security forces from the anti-hacking provision of the bill and the inclusion of interception capabilities.

Slowly, country by country, these laws are being enacted helped in no small measure by the events of September 11. For all the laws being enacted and the money being spent around the world on new anti-terrorist laws, nobody seems to be able to tell me how these new restrictions would have prevented men armed with knives from taking over those planes. If anything, this ability to switch off cellphones as needed seems to go against what we learned with the fourth jet, whose occupants were warned of the other attacks by phone and who decided to take matters into their own hands.

Really the only thing standing between New Zealand and these kinds of laws and activities is the upcoming election. Electronic legislation has been shunted into a holding pattern until after the election -- though we're promised speedy passage of it if Labour comes to govern alone.

So far as I can tell, and it's a little tricky given the relatively poor levels of information available from some political parties, the only party opposed to the Crimes Amendment Bill in its current form for these reasons is the Green Party. Which worries me somewhat.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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