As shadow minister for cyber security and someone concerned about our national security, I have a keen interest in both the public and parliamentary debate over the Guardian’s revelations about the mass surveillance carried out by US and UK spies revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden.
It has raised questions over privacy, security, responsibility and data ownership that any future Labour government will need to be able to answer as part of our digital strategy.
However, it has also raised the spectre of ‘killer engineers’ to quote David Aaronovitch who recently announced that “the uber geeks are on the march”, when it comes to surveillance.
As part of his justification, Alan Rusbridger has claimed engineers are “racing ahead with the [technical] possibilities, way ahead of where the law is...engineers will always go further”.
Certainly the revelations have undermined public confidence in new technology as a force for good.
Engineering a better life
And that made me realise that the one voice we are not hearing about is that of the people who design and build the technology that is now coming under scrutiny - the engineers.
As a chartered electrical engineer I worked in telecoms for 20 years before I entered politics, and my first job on graduating was for global telecoms equipment vendor Nortel. I wrote the code for the communications protocol QSIG, which is still in use, and if my memory serves me right, did include lawful intercept functionality. The clue was in the name. Lawful intercept. That is to say, intercepting calls in accordance with the law.
I went into engineering because I wanted to design and build things which worked and made life better, and I spent many years doing exactly that around the world. In my experience technology is almost never the real challenge to what is possible. Engineers can do pretty much anything that we are asked except violate the fundamental laws of physics and time. The most difficult challenges are almost always questions of cost, time or the legislative framework.
Hacking was never impossible
Let us take the modern miracle which is our ability to split white light up into 32 different wavelengths, and put 10 gigabit of data onto each light wavelength all going down the same fibre. Put 1000 fibres down the same cable and it is carrying a whole nation’s international data communications.
Was it really unimaginable that that cable might be tapped in some way? I remember an episode of Spooks which showed exactly that. I also remember working as head of technology at Ofcom during the first hacking revelations when it was unclear whether listening to someone’s voicemail was illegal – if you didn’t damage, that is, delete, it. There was no question as to whether it was technically possible.
The underlying problem is that the police, public servants, politicians and the general public are not always in a position to assess which technical scenarios are likely and therefore how the legislative framework may have to change.
We need a higher level of general digital literacy if we are to have a better informed debate, so it is not a small groups of privileged individuals, be they in politics, media or technology, who are taking these critical decisions.