It's easy to found an organization; it's hard to keep one alive even for as long as ten years. This week, the Foundation for Information Policy Research celebrated its tenth birthday. Ten years is a long time in Internet terms, and even longer when you're trying to get government to pay attention to expertise in a subject as difficult as technology policy.
My notes from the launch contain this quote from FIPR's first director, Caspar Bowden, which shows you just how difficult FIPR's role was going to be: "An educational charity has a responsibility to speak the truth, whether it's pleasant or unpleasant." FIPR was intended to avoid the narrow product focus of corporate laboratory research and retain the traditional freedoms of an academic lab.
My notes also show the following list of topics FIPR intended to research: the regulation of electronic commerce; consumer protection; data protection and privacy; copyright; law enforcement; evidence and archiving; electronic interaction between government, businesses, and individuals; the risks of computer and communications systems; and the extent to which information technologies discriminate against the less advantaged in society. Its first concern was intended to be researching the underpinnings of electronic commerce, including the then recent directive launched for public consultation by the European Commission.
In fact, the biggest issue of FIPR's early years was the crypto wars leading up to and culminating in the passage of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000). It's safe to say that RIPA would have been a lot worse without the time and energy Bowden spent listening to Parliamentary debates, decoding consultation papers, and explaining what it all meant to journalists, politicians, civil servants, and anyone else who would listen.
Not that RIPA is a fountain of democratic behavior even as things are. In the last couple of weeks we've seen the perfect example of the kind of creeping functionalism that FIPR and Privacy International warned about at the time: the Poole council using the access rules in RIPA to spy on families to determine whether or not they really lived in the right catchment area for the schools their children attend.
That use of the RIPA rules, Bowden said at at FIPR's half-day anniversary conference last Wednesday, sets a precedent for accessing traffic data for much lower level purposes than the government originally claimed it was collecting the data for. He went on to call the recent suggestion that the government may be considering a giant database, updated in real time, of the nation's communications data "a truly Orwellian nightmare of data mining, all in one place."
Ross Anderson, FIPR's founding and current chair and a well-known security engineer at Cambridge, noted that the same risks adhere to the NHS database. A clinic that owns its own data will tell police asking for the names of all its patients under 16 to go away. "If," said Anderson, "it had all been in the NHS database and they'd gone in to see the manager of BT, would he have been told to go and jump in the river? The mistake engineers make too much is to think only technology matters."
That point was part of a larger one that Anderson made: that hopes that the giant databases under construction will collapse under their own weight are forlorn. Think of developing Hulk-Hogan databases and the algorithms for mining them as an arms race, just like spam and anti-spam. The same principle that holds that today's cryptography, no matter how strong, will eventually be routinely crackable means that today's overload of data will eventually, long after we can remember anything we actually said or did ourselves, be manageable.
The most interesting question is: what of the next ten years? Nigel Hickson, now with the Department of Business, Enterprise, and Regulatory Reform, gave some hints. On the European and international agenda, he listed the returning dominance of the large telephone companies on the excuse that they need to invest in fiber. We will be hearing about quality of service and network neutrality. Watch Brussels on spectrum rights. Watch for large debates on the liability of ISPs. Digital signatures, another battle of the late 1990s, are also back on the agenda, with draft EU proposals to mandate them for the public sector and other services. RFID, the "Internet for things" and the ubiquitous Internet will spark a new round of privacy arguments.
Most fundamentally, said Anderson, we need to think about what it means to live in a world that is ever more connected through evolving socio-technological systems. Government can help when markets fail; though governments themselves seem to fail most notoriously with large projects.
FIPR started by getting engineers, later engineers and economists, to talk through problems. "The next growth point may be engineers and psychologists," he said. "We have to progressively involve more and more people from more and more backgrounds and discussions."
Probably few people feel that their single vote in any given election really makes a difference. Groups like FIPR, PI, No2ID, and ARCH remind us that even a small number of people can have a significant effect. Happy birthday.
Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to email@example.com (but please turn off HTML).