The big online companies are calling for urgent reforms to protect us from having data intercepted
Over a few weeks’ worth of bedtimes in the summer of 1984, my dad read me Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Though the dystopian context would have been lost on nine-year old me, the pervasive malevolence and the futility of the struggle was not.
References to Orwell are never far off today, whether to Big Brother and the surveillance society, or doublethink and Room 101. The Orwellian dystopia is so familiar now to us – and so astonishingly real – that we might need a new cultural reference, a new literary vision to warn of what lies ahead.
It’s the relentless creep of progress and development that inevitably makes our worst nightmares and most brilliant visions a reality. Fifty years ago, security expert Eugene Kaspersky told a conference last week, the public would have been protesting on the streets at the idea that cameras would be surveilling every public placeacross the country, all day, every day. Today, we just accept it.
At the same conference, Dublin’s Web Summit, the vast audience in the hangar-sized hall was asked how many had abandoned consumer web companies in the wake of Edward Snowden‘s revelations. Three people put up their hands – and this among well-informed, technologically confident people.
The gap between the shock of these revelations and the call to action is perverse. The story is huge, multifaceted and complex, which excludes all but the most committed. For others, the truth about services on which they are utterly dependent – we are all utterly dependent – is too inconvenient to want to act; far easier to declare, “I’m not doing anything wrong,” and, “I don’t care if I’m being watched.”
In truth, the call to action is not that we consumers abandon our online lives and seek out anonymity tools such as Tor, or start encrypting all our email using PGP. It’s no bad thing that more sophisticated security techniques are seeping into the mainstream consciousness; gleeful pub conversations about our how mobile phones double as microphones and how even the subtle differences in the sound of typewriter keys can be decoded. Kaspersky has his own currency of expertise to maintain, and he too recounts how he won’t store any compromising data on a computer at all.
This is borne out by the testimony of the tech investors at Web Summit too. “We’re just not looking for privacy-aware services,” said Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures. “There are so many compelling examples of value being created by sharing data, from traffic jams to healthcare. The problem isn’t privacy but trust. We can’t retreat into the dark ages.” That means spending time influencing policy, he concluded. Entrepreneurs were falling over themselves to testify to their fierce protection of customer data; taxi-app Hailo is building up records of payment details combined with location data for account holders, while Evernote records increasingly extensive personal notes covering everything from bank statements to work meetings. Both say they have not handed over customer data outside of specific warrants but as we now know, the NSA doesn’t need permission – it will help itself. What are you sharing online?
The crisis is in public trust of both our governments – who, when it suits them, will seize the opportunity to criticise oppressive regimes who restrict free speech — and corporations whose reputation depends on credibility and trust. European nations have generally set up rigorous laws to protect their citizens from business, while its governments rely on the trust and goodwill of the public. In the US that situation is reversed, with citizens protected from government through the constitution, and business commercially dependent on trust, among other things. The lack of oversight and accountability has meant the security services never had to draw the line about what is acceptable, necessary, moral and legal.
This dynamic of corporate autonomy may end up creating the strongest fightback against the over-reaching security services, with Google and Yahoo’s fury at the intercepts of their data networks and heavy lobbying in Washington. “We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fibre networks,” said Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond. “It underscores the need for urgent reform.”
Surveillance is the undercurrent in every tech conversation now, a lens for understanding our vulnerability and exposure to every part of the online world. This is not a choice between catching terrorists and what David Cameron astonishingly described as some “la-di-da, airy fairy” views on free speech and the right to privacy. If we are happy to accept that our online lives are best represented by Google, Skype, Yahoo, Facebook and all the rest, despite the compromises we make on those commercial platforms, then we have to hope they have the best chance of clawing back our right to free expression and privacy, our right to relate the world around us without being watched.
Returning to Orwell, what will the state of our surveillance nation be in 2031? The worst that can happen is that the whole lot comes true.
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