Computer says terrorist: the Investigatory Powers Bill will legalise algorithmic suspicion

In the UK today, you can be brought to the attention of the security services by computer algorithms, which judge you by interrogating volumes of data about your life so large they defy comprehension.

Computer says terrorist.

Right now, all the data we generate as we go about our business is swept  up and stored in vast warehouses full of hard-drives. If there’s data the security services can’t collect by tapping internet backbone-cables or demanding it from telcos , they either hack it, steal it or request it from the NSA. Their mission is to “collect it all.”

MI5, MI6 and GCHQ’s “target discovery” algorithms aren’t recipes you or I could follow. Even the teams of engineer-acolytes who service them can’t explain how they make their decisions. They write themselves. They evolve. They have replaced human judgement.

We’ve all heard stories about situations where an official has taken a computer’s word for something over a human’s. Being identified as a person of interest by a computer, rather than a human, lends a subtle extra layer of credibility to the assertion.

Computers are making value judgements about us in secret, based on what they can extract and infer from our data, and these automatic pronouncements can then be used to justify intruding even further into our private lives. If the algorithm has “flagged” us then we must merit closer examination by the state. We are suspect because the algorithm says so.

What difference will the Investigatory Powers Bill make if it becomes law? Simply that it will make all this legal, whereas much of it was either illegal previously or relied on secret interpretations of over-broad laws.

The IPBill will also deputise  Internet Service Providers as mass-surveillance sheriffs. They will be forced to retain 12 months of our browsing histories for official inspection. The best TEMPORA can manage right now is seven days of “full take” – i.e. content – and 30 days of metadata (meaning comprehensive records of your private activities).

There are no ghosts in the spooks’ machines. Just a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, the dangers of which we must now either recognise and reject, or accept and submit to for a generation.

Human officers should control and direct GCHQ’s computers – not the other way round.