A few weeks ago in the UK there was some concern over a last-minute proposed amendment to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill. This amendment, if passed, would have given the UK government back door access to encrypted messaging clients such as WhatsApp and Snapchat. As someone who lives in the UK these proposals concerned me too, not so much for the cost and security worries pointed out by others, but for the larger role increased surveillance and privacy intrusions play on the freedom of speech, and perhaps our democracy as a whole.
It's clear that freedom of speech is essential to any successful free democracy, and subsequently, it's almost always missing under any totalitarian rule. Could it be that if government surveillance continues to increase people may no longer feel free to openly discuss controversial topics or opposing political views in fear of being put on the "watch list"?
Over the last decade we have begun to understand the dangers of over sharing online - especially through social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Individuals now regularly come under fire for controversial posts or activity made sometimes years previously. This mainly affects those who are in the public eye, but more and more often employers and colleges have been looking at individuals' online activities to make decisions about their potential employees or prospective students. In fact, this has become such as issue over the last few years the EU has introduced a "right to be forgotten" to protect individuals from being stigmatized by their history and past activities online.
This worry that our internet history activity could affect our job security or personal reputation has caused many people to privatise their accounts online. Some have taken it a step further and have opted not to share content that could reflect negatively on them all together.
But what if you can't privatise who sees your activity? What if you can't decide what information you share and what you keep private?
This is the difference between sharing information publicly through websites such as Facebook, and the mass surveillance done by our governments. One is avoidable, the other isn't. It's because of this my concern is less with people sharing sensitive information online and more with the private, and sometimes secret, data collection by our governments and service providers.
When the Draft Communications Data Bill was originally proposed in 2012 by the UK government it was looking to force ISPs and phone providers to store all internet and phone history of their customers for at least two years. After this bill was proposed, a survey was conducted to gather the public's' opinion. This survey found that 71% of Brits didn't trust the government with the information, stating they were worried it wouldn't be kept secure. Thankfully, the Draft Communications Data Bill never passed, but if it did, it leaves us wondering if any of those 71% of people would change their phone or internet activities to protect themselves in the event of a data leak, or unlawful access of their information. What we do know is that when surveyed 41% of respondents said they would be less like to use websites and online services if the legislation passed. With online services being so critical to modern economic growth, if true, this would be a very undesirable outcome.
Maybe you are someone who believes that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear - that increase surveillance is only a problem for criminals and terrorists. But the problem is we all have something to hide. Who can honestly say there is nothing they wouldn't want their employer or colleagues knowing? Of course, that could be because it's illegal. But sometimes it might not be as clear cut, and other times it might be simply that the information is sensitive to us. Who wants the details of their messy divorce or sex life available to the public? We've all done bad things in the past, and even if what we've done isn't illegal, it's likely we still wouldn't want everyone to know.
So how likely would it be for this data to get out? Well, if you're someone in the public eye or an outspoken political opponent, would it be impossible that your data could be unlawfully accessed if you upset the wrong people? And what if the information is stolen or hacked? If it did happen it wouldn't be the first time, in 2007 the UK government lost two CDs containing 25 million child benefit records. So even if it's unlikely to happen, would you want to risk it?
Now what if we take it a step further? We know in the USA the NSA seems to have very vague requirements when it comes to adding people to their watch list. Since Edward Snowden's leak of NSA documents in 2013, reports have come out suggesting that individuals may be added to the NSA's watch list for simply researching services like TOR, which ironically help keep users internet use anonymous. But perhaps more worrying still is that they may also consider activity on Facebook and Twitter when adding people to their watch list. If that's happening would it be unthinkable that in the future Google searches or visiting certain websites could get you added to their watch list also?
Although I understand we are a long way off yet, I worry if governments keep pushing for more and more surveillance people may think twice before posting, or even viewing anything critical of their government. I accept some surveillance can be critical to prevent crime and terrorism, but surely we need to find a balance we can all be comfortable with? Criminal investigations are supposed to be difficult for a reason, and privacy intrusions should never happen lightly. At the end of the day, requiring everyone to carry a personal surveillance camera with them 24 hours a day would help reduce crime, but at what cost? With surveillance cameras and the monitoring of our internet and phone activities, technology can allow governments to come very close to doing just that.
Do you worry about who's reading your Facebook posts? And do you think we should ever expect privacy online?
If you want to read more on government surveillance feel free to take a look at the links below.
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