Privacy Invaded!

“A sleepy, global village called Privacy awoke this morning to find itself overrun during the night by evil forces using the internet as a weapon of mass destruction…”

Of course, this is simply me being quite facetious (I wouldn’t stretch to funny, I doubt you will either). Privacy is not a village, and it has not literally been invaded. That said, the reason I parodied the headline of a newspaper is to make a serious point: this really isn’t headline news. For years we have been spied on by various institutions under the auspicious guise of National Security, or simply basic policing (take CCTV, for example), and of course via the friendly world of marketing. Consciously or subconsciously we have been aware of this fact for years.

It isn’t in the context of fashion, the creative arts, or even the drugs and alcohol culture that the new generational gap is to be seen. It is in the realm of privacy, precipitated by advances in communication technology since the 60’s, the phone; the mobile phone; SMS; the internet;and lastly but most important: social media networks. Suddenly the older generation is surrounded by a world where individuals are prepared to give a running commentary on their day-to-day lives. The concept of privacy has changed and is still rapidly changing as new advances in connectivity filter out into the wider world. This is where we have to start when we talk about the nature of privacy in the digital age.

The releasing of the Snowden files recently unveiled the overwhelming technological capabilities of security agencies around the world, tracking the extent of Big Data mining and the capability to monitor masses of public and private internet chatter. This report seemed to be a bombshell which should have seen the populations of great Western liberal democracies out in the streets en masse. Riots, parliament in flames, at the very least the peaceful march of millions through the streets of London. There was, however, no such thing. Perhaps this is because most people were indoors glued to their bright screens. To be fair, there has been a limited debate for which I commend Snowden but the fact remains that since he has taken refuge in Russia there has been surprisingly little coverage of this story.

The fact is we now have a generation which lives in and around the social networking sites that gather vast swathes of data from each and every one of us. At the same time they are also far more comfortable with institutions having access to this information, especially in the arena of marketing. In a blog post by J.V. Grove, the attitude to data mining by marketing companies was summed up succinctly in this young girls response to online advertising: “If ads are tailored to me, I’m totally fine with them,” Tess said, “but [advertisers] really should get it right.”. I struggle to believe this generation is unaware of how companies go about successfully targeting advertising to individuals. At the same time the free-to-use model is king yet still Facebook floats itself on the stock-market at an over-inflated price. Again, I think the tech-savvy generation that has grown up in cyberspace knows the score here. We have given our signatures in blood so that the Mephistophelian ‘Internet’ may service our needs, but have we given away our souls in the process?

The fact is, younger people are far more comfortable talking openly about things that their parents might feel to be private. One negative to social networking sites is that there is a plethora of useless information floating around out there (such as the contents of a persons breakfast, or the length of the queue at the post office), but this simply requires we act as a filter. Perhaps the fact that people think others are interested in all this means individuals are developing an inflated sense of self, but the connectivity that has arisen from social networking has also cast light on previously taboo subjects and connected like-minded individuals who would have once felt isolated.

At the same time, despite the idea that younger people are unaware of the repercussions of their lack of discretion I believe this generation is well aware of the amount of information that exists out there. They are knowledgable enough to know that the possibility of future repercussions requires them to curb their actions on social networking sites. We will always naturally keep something back but it seems to me that the world could do with a little more transparency, even if a lot of it is banal.

Meanwhile, the technology that allows such mass surveillance has also given rise to sites such as Wikileaks, allowing socially active ‘hackers’ worldwide to take the fight to the doorstep of previously unaccountable institutions. The secretive domain of intelligence services is getting an unwelcome light shone into the dark recesses of their world. The extent to which their power reaches is a matter for public discussion, whatever your feelings on the necessity of these institutions. The rights of the individual are best served having this information in the public domain. Liberty requires that such power is subject to checks and balances which go beyond the internal workings of the state, to include the wider population wherever possible. The internet is both a tool for surveillance and one that allows us to move towards transparency and accountability in these arenas.

I don’t believe that governments should have impunity in the surveillance that is undertaken on a daily basis. On the other hand, I am also a pragmatist in believing that this doesn’t mean nation states shouldn’t have the capability to monitor communications. I wish we lived in a world free of the threat of harm but human nature is human nature. We would be dull automatons if it wasn’t. That said, the internet is providing us with a rare opportunity to get the balance right between prevention of harm and the destruction of individual freedom. Instead of top down control we should continue to see grassroots organisations such as Wikileaks ‘monitoring the monitors’.

Advances in global connectivity have inevitably seen the nature of privacy change down the years. Perhaps the main problem is the speed with which these changes have occurred. States and individuals alike are struggling to come to terms with the social changes that this has brought about. Nation states have dealt with the freedom of the internet badly, and the link between privacy and individual freedom means we must be wary of the surveillance state. That said, surely it is what institutions do with the information that really matters. Perhaps we should focus less on an individuals right to keep secrets and more on his ability to make choices. If institutions start to curb these choices then we have a problem, but at the end of the day I couldn’t care less what you know about me as long as you let me go about my life and control my own future.