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Eric King responds to ISS World's Tatiana Lucas

Tatiana Lucas’s calculated flag-waving and her invocation of the modern-day bogeyman of unemployment in her letter to the Wall Street Journal today was both distasteful and dishonest. TeleStrategies Inc (which runs the ISS World conferences) has as much interest in creating jobs for US citizens as it does in protecting the lives of Iranian political dissidents: none whatsoever. The ISS World conferences host companies from all over the world, including China. At the time of writing, I am returning home from the latest ISS World event in Kuala Lumpur, where several Chinese companies were proffering their wares, often in direct competition with their US counterparts. The sole purpose of the ISS World conferences is to generate profit for Jerry Lucas, owner of TeleStrategies, and any suggestion that organizers in fact behave in a spirit of patriotic altruism must be greeted with the derision it deserves.

I would also dispute Ms Lucas’s assumption that American companies and citizens would leap at the chance to develop and sell social network interception technologies for export to “countries outside the US and Western Europe…especially following the Arab Spring”. The pro-democracy revolutions that toppled Mubarak in Egypt, President Ben Ali in Tunisia and Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 were commended by democratic governments around the world, and the importance of online social networks like Twitter to their success has been widely acknowledged. To insinuate that Americans will be queuing up to provide countries like Syria and Bahrain with the tools to monitor and target human rights activists, and to smother the flames of the next Arab Spring, is an insult to the United States and its people.

The contention that accurate reporting of the state of the surveillance industry today will prevent Congress from updating the law on lawful interception is equally offensive. I’m sure the majority of US citizens would agree that Members of Congress are better placed to develop and pass this kind of legislation when they have access to as much information as possible on the technologies and industries it affects. But Ms Lucas seems to suggest that the legislative process would function more effectively if ISS World and its ilk controlled what information to reveal and what to conceal to democratically elected lawmakers. This kind of arrogance is rife amongst conference organizers and exhibitors within the surveillance industry, who seem to have forgotten that being all-seeing and all-knowing doesn’t automatically make you all-powerful.

It is worth mentioning that privacy advocates like myself have been battling for updated lawful interception legislation for many years – in this respect, our interests and those of Ms Lucas seem to overlap. Current US law is out of date and fails to adequately govern the use of the latest technologies by law enforcement and the intelligence services, meaning that the parameters of government power are unknown – hardly a privacy-friendly situation.

Ms Lucas’s final argument – that Chinese companies will always be willing to sell dangerous technologies to oppressive regimes, so American companies might as well do the same – is so hackneyed it is hardly worth responding to. During the 1770s, the British pro-slavery lobby tried the same ruse, claiming that if Britain ceased to trade African slaves, commercial rivals like the French and the Dutch would simply fill the gap. It suffices to say that social progress and universal respect for human dignity and freedoms will never be achieved by subscribing to the ethics of the lowest common denominator. What Ms Lucas is advocating is a moral race to the bottom – one in which every participant is ultimately a loser.

Eric King
Human Rights and Technology Adviser
Privacy International