DRIP by drip: have we given up on privacy?

Saturday 18 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Frobisher Auditorium 2, Barbican 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?

Listen to the debate:

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
head of department and 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, Manifesto Club

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Dr James Panton head of politics, Magdalen College School, Oxford; associate lecturer in politics and philosophy, Open University; co-founder, Manifesto Club
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