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The color purple

The multi-disciplinary designer Peter Hall recently began a talk on security by invoking Jane Jacobs, best known for her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. A classic still often referenced, Jacobs' book critiqued 1950s urban planning and discussed topics such as what makes a city or neighborhood safe and pleasant to live in. In particular, to foster safe, pleasant environments she advocated "eyes on the street": people.

I understand this in that I recall a still-bright summer's evening in Brooklyn, New York, when I came out of the subway and started to follow the directions to a friend's house and realized that the streets were completely empty, all the shops shuttered. I walked through this desert as fast and mean as I could - and saw not one person in the five to ten minutes it took to get to my friends' loft. They were horrified I'd tried it.

For Hall, Jacobs' point was that the public peace is not primarily kept by the police but by an informal, or " almost unconscious", network of standards and controls created and enforced by the people themselves. The best deterrent to crime, she argued, was busy, diverse streets; instead of building business districts that everyone leaves at night, build mixed-use neighborhoods where the mere visible presence of local residents acts as a deterrent. Note: she did not suggest building Jeremy Bentham's panopticon. 512px-Panopticon.jpgInstead, what she was talking about was a collaborative approach to the very real problem of securing public safety.

Cut to this week, when four peers - former Conservative defence secretary Tom King of Bridgwater, the Liberal Democrat former reviewer of counter-terror laws, Alex Carlile QC of Beriew, the former Labour defence minister, Admiral Sir Alan West of Spithead, and the former Metropolitan police commissioner, Ian Blair of Boughton - have tabled the not-dead-only-resting Communications Data Bill as an amendment (PDF) to the Counter-Terrorism and Security bill, currently just past its second reading and plenty controversial all on its own. The lords announced the move yesterday; debate is on Monday.

Recall that when it was passed with widely criticized haste this summer, DRIPA was described as "emergency legislation", and part of the excuse for the haste was that it would automatically expire in 2016, forcing a public debate on the issues. As part of that debate, several reviews were commissioned that have not reported yet. Accordingly, the government's previously stated intention was to revisit the Communications Data bill after the election in May. They've been clear for some time that they want it passed (and might well have gotten it through last time if the LibDems hadn't been in a position to block it). Instead, at least these four peers seem to think they now have a "new normal" in which complex, controversial legislation should be rushed through in such a way as to pre-empt debate, render moot previously commissioned reviews and promises, ignore previous rounds of contravening study , and, for greater ease of confusion, rammed into an entirely separate piece of legislation as an amendment.

Paul Bernal calls it shameful opportunism.

But what could possibly be the objection? Didn't Harvard professors Margo Seltzer (computer science) and Sophia Rosooth (genetics) just tell the Davos forum that privacy is dead? They didn't say to get over it (for which we can all be grateful); they merely predicted that it was "inevitable" that personal genetic information would become public, and painted an image of tiny drones buzzing around grabbing little samples of DNA. They said to send to insurance companies; in today's Britain, it's depressingly easy to imagine a future Theresa May successor arguing that it's vital to store DNA samples from every person in every location because you just don't know what an investigator will need and when.

Return to this week. Here is Theresa May's logic for why the CDB and data retention are needed: the French "highly probably" used communications data. What's with the "highly probably"? Why speculate? You're the Home Secretary, a highly placed person in the British government. Why not ask them what they used, what was valuable, and what was useful distraction?

To some extent, one must blame TV shows' fantasy technology: David Cameron has said publicly that he believes crime dramas illustrate the value of communications data. "Get me all the internet passwords associated with that telephone number!" Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer barks at an underling in the first fifteen minutes of the pilot of 24 - and the underling successfully obeys the order - thereby apparently convincing national leaders that such a thing is *possible*.

Meantime, fighting and refighting this same battle is distracting from the deliberate consideration we should be giving new issues as they arise - like, for example, those DNA-extracting drones or the fact that locations in London are signing up to offer free wifi via a company that thinks it's OK to scoop up everyone's devices' unique MAC addresses. Or even, how to reduce inequality. With more parity, maybe the 1 percent wouldn't have to be so scared of the rest of us and could share our streets instead of fleeing to gated communities.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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