Once upon a time a phone call was transient. Triggered by a series of clicks from a rotary dial, mechanical switches at the exchange would route your call to its destination. Perhaps Peter Dunne and Andrea Vance talked to each other on the phone, but this mechanical switchboard had no record of that happening. In that world, monitoring communications probably required physically accessing the exchange and plugging in a tape recorder. It was a Big Deal.
Today, the simple act of dialling a number results in a database entry. Visiting a website leaves a trace. Touching your access card to a door panel drops a line in a text file.
We have been living under the misguided impression that we are not being watched because the actors who would watch us are inherently law-abiding and moral. The reality is that they haven’t been watching us because it required effort.
We now see the truth: with metadata so readily accessible, it is literally easier to hand over 30 days of phone and access data than to spend time asking if the original request is valid. This is a problem: humans are lazy. No law will fix that.
Spend enough time with any volume of data, and it’s incredibly easy to become desensitized. I remember working for an insurance company, working on calculations that included a field called “expected death strain”. Each (anonymous) row showed the probability, month by month, that the insured party would not be alive. It took a long time for me to realise the importance of those numbers.
A technician in some way attached to parliament sees access and phone records every single day. Someone wants a dump from those files? No big deal, it’s just a portion of those letters numbers they see every day.
I’ve been asked a lot over the last couple of days whether the recent spate of leaks, hacks and law changes are interrelated. My initial position was that no, the changes to TICS and GCSB legislation have nothing to do with a parliamentary inquiry.
I think I was wrong.
We must demand that our metadata is treated with the same level of respect as our personal property. Anything less is immoral.