DRIP by drip: have we given up on privacy?

Saturday 18 October,

Battle of Ideas 2014
Frobisher Auditorium 2,
Technological Innovation

The revelations made last year by Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the US National Security Agency (NSA), were a sharp reminder of just how much the state can invade our supposedly private lives. Snowden claimed the NSA and other agencies had hacked social-media and other online services, were routinely intercepting communications, and even tapping the phones of other world leaders.

Yet it was also well known that legislation like the PATRIOT Act in the US and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) in the UK already gave the authorities wide powers. In July, the UK government announced – with all-party support – emergency legislation (DRIP) to reinstate surveillance powers created by an EU directive in 2006, which were struck down by the European Court of Justice earlier this year. In a report published this year, telecoms operator Vodafone explained how such legislation impacts service providers. Communications companies can be forced to give access to their customers’ communications and, in many countries, there is very little that can be reported about these access requests – even statistics about how many requests are being made. Even telecoms companies’ own senior management are kept in the dark about what is being done.

Yet, it could be argued, this kind of snooping is fairly limited. What is much more problematic, argue some, is a lack of concern – or even opposition to – privacy. This is very clear in relation to social media, where users seem relaxed about revealing the most intimate details of their lives on public or semi-public services like Twitter and Facebook, a trend not helped by the byzantine privacy settings on such services that often assume that things will be shared unless explicitly made private. Disclosure and revelation seem to be the order of the day.

Campaigners for greater transparency would go further, at least in relation to government and business, arguing that there should be a legal obligation to record and disclose all kinds of discussions and decisions. For example, in 2012, the UK education secretary, Michael Gove, was told that emails sent from a private email address must be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act. In other words, using electronic communications to work out ideas for government policy in private would be impossible.

What has become of the idea of privacy? Don’t we need a space free from prying eyes to work out half-formed thoughts and feelings, or is it fair enough to know what businesses and ministers are doing? Do we mistrust each other so much that every kind of electronic interaction must be watched over by others? Can the threats of terrorism and crime really justify keeping tabs on everyone? Or is the cliché that if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear apply? Given our propensity to reveal all online voluntarily, are fears about state intrusion now redundant?

Jennifer Betts –  researcher, Centre for Secure Information Technology (CSIT), Queens University Belfast

Phil Booth – coordinator, medConfidential

Stephen Deadman –  Group Privacy Officer and Head of Legal – Privacy, Security & Content Standards, Vodafone Group

Professor Bill Durodié –  chair of international relations, University of Bath

Dr Natasha McCarthy –  head of policy, British Academy; member, steering committee, Forum for Philosophy, Engineering and Technology

Dr James Panton –  Head of politics, Magdalen College School, Oxford; associate lecturer in politics and philosophy, Open University; co-founder, The Manifesto Club.

Produced By 
Claire Fox director, Institute of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze
Dr James Panton Head of politics, Magdalen College School, Oxford; associate lecturer in politics and philosophy, Open University; co-founder, The Manifesto Club.

Rockwell – Somebody’s Watching Me – 2004


Panelist Jennifer Betts (researcher, Centre for Secure Information Technology (CSIT), Queens University Belfast) believes that “we will pay a high price if we do not fight for privacy” as a result of the various forms of privacy control which is actually an attack on our autonomy. Betts implies that we could be less protected than we think and wonders what the government plans to do about this. Betts went onto state that as a researcher, adhering to ethical guidelines around privacy and trust is often fundamental to whether or not her projects will be given the green light to go forward. In contrast, the amount of personal data, organisations have (on us) and use without our knowledge and consent is a concern. There appears to be a great deal of ambivalence around privacy. This is a topic covered in the Debating Matters International Final 2014 held as part of Battle of Ideas. The debate motion was: “We should be willing to compromise our privacy in the interests of national and international security.”

Stephen Deadman (Privacy Officer:- for Vodafone) felt that some degree of surveillance was necessary as it enables the government to track and monitor members of society. The law in fact requires telecom services to work with the government to provide data.

At this point I was pondering on the fact that very little policing was going on around our privacy. What exactly is our data being used for? I mean, once it’s out there in that great abyss known as the World Wide Web there is no telling who we have “signed off aspects of our life to”. More importantly what impact does this obsession with surveillance have on future societal attitudes which was a good question posed by Betts?

Yes there may be a case for surveillance but who should be doing this monitoring? To what extent and for what purpose? There appears to be no boundaries! For instance, there has been quite a lot of hacking of phone lines and computers by newspaper groups and other companies. Have we gone mad in our pursuit of what we perceive as an obligation to get news worthy material? I guess this is another topic entirely but well worth a mention as it dovetails somewhat with privacy or the lack of it.

Should we be thinking twice now prior to using Twitter, Facebook or any other form, of social media to communicate? I mean all this watching is like leaving your front door open and welcoming the world in… isn’t it?

© Tiemo Talk of the Town

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Battle of Ideas 2014 – DRIP by drip: have we given up on privacy? Further reading Battle of Ideas 2014 – Debating Matters International Final 2014 –  We should be willing to compromise our privacy in the interests of national and international security – 18.10.14
Battle of Ideas 2014 – Tiemo Talk of the Town reviews
Battle of Ideas 2013 – Tiemo Talk of the Town reviews
Battle of Ideas 2012 – Tiemo talk of the Town reviews

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2 Responses to DRIP by drip: have we given up on privacy?

  1. Pingback: Debating Matters International Final 2014 | tiemotalkofthetown

  2. Tiemo Talk says:

    I think there should be surveillance but with clear boundaries. Governments would love to have more and more access to the public’s private and public data (social media postings) and will use atrocities such as Paris 3 weeks ago, to try and force through ever draconian monitoring legislation.

    At the end of the day they can’t monitor every communication and if someone is hell bent on doing evil they will find a way. I think the public needs to push back on this. Government’s need to focus on tackling the root cause of extremism and dealing with people’s such strong grievances that make them want to do harm to innocent citizens.

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