People often concentrate rather too much on abuses by the state of personal data. But private sector organisations are certainly no better. One key example was made public this week, when the new UK Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, announced that he would be prosecuting a major mobile phone company (he is not saying which one yet*) for selling personal information which it held on customers. The trade in personal information is a very difficult thing to regulate: telecoms companies will deny up front that they ever do anything like this, but yet we know it happens frequently in every jurisdiction, in both management-sanctioned and illicit forms; and practically, of course, once the information is ‘out there’, it cannot be recalled. So, no-one should feel safe just because they have ticked (or unticked) that little box under all that often indeciferable text about what a company might do with your data. I hope that whatever firm this is, it gets hits where it will hurt most, on its bottom line.
Surveillance like this harms us all: it makes our lives banal and reveals only the sadness and the pain.
I was watching episode 5 of the film when two stories popped into my inbox that just happened to be related. The first was from theNew York Times business section and dealt with the other side of the recent US sporting scandal over revelations that baseball player Alex Rodriguez has taken steroids. Like User 711391, Rodriguez had given up his data (in this case, a sample) in the belief that the data would be anonymous and aggregated. But it wasn’t.
So, then we come to how the state deals with this. The Toronto Globe and Mail comments on the way the Canadian federal government is, like so many others, proposing to introduce new legislation to monitor and control Internet use. The comment argues that there is no general need to store personal Internet use data (or Canada will end up like the UK…), and that Internet surveillance should be governed by judicial oversight. Quite so. But, as the NYT article points out, it isn’t just the expanding appetite of the state for data (frequently coupled in the UK with incompetence in data handling) that we should fear but the growth in numbers of, and lack of any oversight or control over, private-sector dataveillance operations.
Some people will argue that any talk of privacy here is irrelevant: User 711391 was cheating on her husband; Rodrguez was taking steroids; there are paedophiles and terrorists conspiring on the Internet. With surveillance the guilty are revealed. Surely, as Damon Knight’s classic short story, ‘I See You’, claimed, with everything exposed we are truly free from ‘sin’? But no. In its revelations, surveillance like this harms us all: it makes our lives banal and reveals only the sadness and the pain. For User 711391, her access to the Internet served at different times as her main source of entertainment, desire, friendship, and even conscience. The AOL debacle revealed all of this and demeaned her and many others in the process. Most of us deserve the comfort of our very ordinary secrets and the ability for things to be forgotten. This is the true value of privacy.
(Thanks to Chiara Fonio for letting me know about I Love Alaska)
There will be a very interesting -looking conference in Amsterdam, 11-12 June, called Datawars: Fighting Terrorism through Data. According to the call for papers, the workshop will be held at the University of Amsterdam in June and will explore the ethical and political implications of the new data-led approach to security, risk and fighting terrorism in Europe. Suggested topics include:
Privacy, security and human rights
Ethics, responsibility and justice in European data wars
Risk, prevention, preemption
Data and surveillance
Private authorities, states and the European Union
Constituting Europe through data
It´s part of a project run by a couple of excellent researchers, Louise Amoore and Marieke de Goede, of the Universities of Durham and Amsterdam respectively (who probably don´t remember but I worked in an tiny attic office opposite them in the Politics Dept at Newcastle for a few months just after my PhD!). I might go as I have been doing some work on attempts to create global databases, called ´From Echelon to Server in the Sky´, but the timing might be awkward (unfortunately I can´t reveal why yet…).