China’s snooping on dissidents is unfortunate but unsurprising, but Western governments – and businesses – need to get out of our private communications, too.
Last week a British man, Paul Chambers, was arrested under terrorism provisions after making an ill-advised joke on the social networking web site Twitter. But really, should jokes be something that we consider ill-advised?
Mr Chambers made a remark that many of us might make in everyday conversation: he joked that he would bomb an airport if it didn’t re-open in time for his flight.
It is the unfortunate reality that such jokes are not viewed with levity in potential terrorist targets such as airports and train stations – as former ministry of justice employee George McFaul found out to his cost after being sentenced to twelve months in prison for making smartalec remarks on the Tube in 2008. Questions of public safety in crowded places are one thing, but is it really the case that making an off-hand remark on the internet is cause for an official investigation? Despite the staggering incompetence of alleged underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, I have yet to hear of any terrorist quite stupid enough to announce his or her plans days in advance in an open forum such as Twitter.
Besides, in the immortal worlds of the late, lamented George Carlin, bomb jokes may be forbidden at airports, but who decides what’s acceptable? “What about a riddle? How about a limerick? How about a bomb anecdote? You know, no punch line. Just a really cute story.”
All of the arguments in the world about free speech not covering the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre do not make up for the fact that Mr Chambers remark was clearly a jokey expression of frustration. And, remember, he wasn’t even in a “theatre”.
Mr Chambers privacy has disappeared, his personal life is in turmoil and his future career prospects are potentially endangered – and for what? So that the police can make an example of someone for making a spoof “threat” that no-one took seriously in the first place?
More to the point, though, how did the police come to notice the tweet in question? There are only two possibilities: they were tipped-off by someone acting for reasons unknown or, more disturbingly, they regularly monitor sites such as Twitter looking for people in order to make their lives a misery.
If the latter is the case, it’s time the public stood-up and called for an end to the insanity. Trawling for “evidence” of misdemeanours on internet communication networks is not appropriate behaviour for the police.
One presumes that the various law enforcement agencies are capable of doing their jobs and aren’t, in fact, composed of rejects from the Keystone Kops, and therefore have some idea of who they are actually looking for. Why, then, are they bothered with the rest of us?
The internet age has made snooping all too easy. Websites such as Facebook and Twitter, not to mention the disturbing smartphone application FourSquare that broadcasts users’ locations, have given any one of us the potential to act as unlicenced private detectives – and without taking any of the risks Philip Marlowe took when down those mean streets he went.
When you consider the routine snooping done by potential employers and the fact that our lives are increasingly dependent on shadowy databases such as those help by credit scoring firms it’s becomes quickly apparent that a degree of what we once thought of as paranoia may be the smartest option.
There are some technical solutions to state and business fascination with our lives, such as e-mail encryption, and such measures are to be encouraged. More important, though, is the political dimension: it’s time get these people out of our lives. The police can go back to investigating crimes and private business can go back to making things we might want to buy.
In the meantime, if anyone wants to overreact to the meaningless rubbish I post on Twitter, my username is @tiredhack.