If you don’t yet know what “metadata” is or how “mass surveillance” might affect your life don’t wait too long to find out. It is one of those issues, like climate change, in which the experts are significantly more worried about the future than the rest of us.
Lets face it, human rights are not popular in European political discourse. Whilst most politicians of most parties support human rights in private, it seems that the political pay-off for publicly supporting these rights is diminishing by the day. Mainstream politicians are afraid of the extremists and populists feeding of a European public that seems to have forgotten why the Second World War mattered in existentialist terms and why the Berlin wall was more than a pile of bricks. But the stakes for this collective amnesia and populist dismissal of human rights are high. Amongst internationally recognized human rights, the right to privacy must rank as one of the lowest in terms of popularity and understanding, only higher perhaps than the right to asylum. Europeans, or their children, will one day regret their failure to protect the right to asylum and so too would they regret the loss of the right to privacy but perhaps for different reasons.
I don’t know for certain, but if you stopped a random sample in the street, most Britons would see the right to privacy as an elite right – the concern of celebrities and politicians. Those most worried about the loss of privacy are sometimes regarded as those with most to lose – dirty secrets that they should not have in the first place. This has shifted a little with the UK’s telephone hacking debate, in particular when the parents of a murdered girl had their phones spied on by unspeakable journalists, but people still buy the newspapers. The law seems confused from reigning in aggressive libel suits that had once silenced whistle-blowers, on the one hand, to the “right to be forgotten online” ruling on the other.
But for most of us ask what is the big fuss about anyway? We happily tick the consent box as we voluntarily hand over huge amounts of data to on-line service providers and supermarkets every week. If we want privacy, just switch off your phone, right?
However, contrast the UK with Germany, where the revelations of how “Big Brother” has been listening in on our lives (as illustrated in Edward Snowden’s revelations) has prompted a national debate. German society remembers why the right to privacy matters. This is in part the legacy of the Gestapo and then the Stasi – with files on anyone who did not quite fit – reinforced by the current geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West. The social licence for ICT companies and German politicians is premised on taking the right to privacy very seriously indeed. There is a growing market for those who can reassure the public that their data is kept securely within Germany borders and that the Government does not retain data for purposes other than those clearly defined in law. At stake is not just privacy of personal data but democratic space itself and many of the freedoms that any democracy holds dear, not to mention artistic, political and intellectual creativity.
At the core of the international debate is whether the collection of large amounts of data by security agencies is a breach of the right to privacy in itself? If the data is just collected but not immediately sifted by computers or humans, is it prima facie an abuse of rights? When are such activities proportionate as a response to an ongoing or specific terrorist threat? And, if we know that huge amounts of data are being stored, to be sifted at some point in the future, what is the chilling effect this might have on the way we live our lives, or the way our children live theirs?
It is tricky stuff in a country such as the UK, where the public is less sensitive to why the right to privacy matters to everyone. Even trickier in the face of terrorism and strong and justifiable contexts where restrictions to the right to privacy has to be balanced against a greater harm – that of violence and murder. The line needs to be drawn, redrawn and constantly drawn again in ways that balance the need for our governments to protect us in very physical ways with a much less tangible right to privacy, the benefit of which is only really transparent once it is lost. In the UK, this is what makes the work of David Anderson, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, over the next months so important.
There is a longer-term need to start to involve the public in wider discussions about why their right to privacy matters. One idea would be for email providers to issue disclaimers to us all whenever we send an email that might not in fact be private. In the USA, providers already need to inform customers if their personal email has been read by security services. A more blanket warning that went to us all would start to get us all to question a little more why privacy matters. We would all behave differently if we believed we had CCTV watching us in all the rooms of our homes, so why don’t we behave like this online where it is clear we are already being watched?
Big data will bring great benefits to society – from fighting epidemics such as Ebola to the tracking of criminals across borders. In many ways the collection of big data is no longer an option, it is how it is collected, how long it is retained and by whom and for what use that matters. There is also another important debate about encryption.
And if on a bright cold day in April the clock strikes thirteen, lets hope its no more than a rusty cog.