The end of Privacy?

July 2014

The DRIP Act grants law enforcement officials access to personal data - Dr Lynch on why this is not the end of privacy, but the end of hypocrisy.

In July, the UK passed the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Act. It was passed as emergency legislation, shortly before Parliament went into summer recess, ensuring minimal opposition from MP's eager to go on holiday. Furthermore, it happened at the same time as David Cameron carried out a major reshuffle of his Cabinet, which greatly distracted the media and commentators from the bill.

It has not, however, evaded public scrutiny altogether. This new legislation allows for certain customer data, also known as ‘metadata' to be retained by communications companies and released to law enforcement officials in the UK when required. The information in question excludes the content of emails and phonecalls, but does include other information such as time, place and recipient. Service providers have to retain the metadata for all UK clients up to a year – and it includes a broad range of companies, such as Yahoo and Facebook, as well as British entities like BT and Virgin.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has justified the bill on the grounds of national security and criminal threats. Its critics, however, make the case that metadata can be used for surveillance and tracking of any private citizen with a phone and Internet connection.

Should we be afraid that the government has overreached its powers? Are we now living in what amounts to a Big Brother society?

Let's take a step back. We no longer live in an analogue world. Today's bank robbers don't put a pair of tights over their head and hold a cashier at gunpoint. Instead, they hack into a bank's network and add a few zeros to the balance of their account. Online crime is every bit as big and as dangerous as offline crime, and the only way to catch it is online. Our neighbourhoods feel safer with more police patrolling the streets and so our digital life will be more secure if law enforcers have monitoring powers. Police powers are curtailed on the streets, and are online as well.

The DRIP Act does not mean universal governmental eavesdropping. Nobody is listening to your phonecalls or reading your emails. The police still need a warrant to access this data, and a judge will always check these warrants are legal, proportional and justified.

This law is, in many regards, playing catch up. There is a parallel situation playing out with some of the major ISPs and new media companies, which retain all their users' data as a matter of course. They obtained their users' consent by burying the information about data retention in lengthy Terms and Conditions written in ‘legalese'. A company like Facebook has powers over that data that extend far beyond anything the British government can do. Facebook does have consent to read profiles, can track a user's whereabouts through their mobile phone and can form a vivid picture of likes, dislikes, habits, purchasing power, health information and network of friends, family and colleagues.

Facebook, Google, Yahoo and others spend billions of dollars on lobbying and public relations to defend their ownership of this data, and governments have been very slow to react to the idea that these service providers hold, literally terabytes of information on an individuals that law enforcers don't have easy access to.

But even as little accountability as these powerful new media companies have, they do still operate in the light of day, and any user that takes the time to reach Terms and Conditions is able to make a decision whether they are willing to accept the trade off between access to a network like Facebook in exchange for effectively giving up their privacy.

A much more sinister situation arises in what has been termed Little Brother surveillance. That is, technology that is exploited by extremists, activists or even rogue individuals, who have taken umbrage against organisations or other individuals. Smartphones are equipped with a very high resolution video camera and microphone, and the devices do not show any indication that they are recording, making it perfectly possible to film or record private conversations. Activists surreptitiously record private conversations and then disseminate them publicly, wreaking havoc.

In the UK we have seen the sort of abuse that occurs when unscrupulous tabloid editors listen to the voicemails of celebrities. In the hands of radical individuals or groups, the repercussions could be even more far-reaching. Would the Good Friday Agreement have been negotiated in Northern Ireland if an aide had been Tweeting Gerry Adams' comments?

It is unrealistic to think we can turn back the clock and return to a pre-digital age of communicating by pigeon post. Similarly, we should acknowledge that governments will always be playing catch-up with legislation. Attitudes towards privacy are changing, the technology that shines light on the shadows is in everybody's hands. Is it the end of privacy, or the end of hypocrisy?

A version of this article appeared in Cambridge News.