Privacy and the Internet

GCHQ at Cheltenham, GloucestershireThe new boss of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, this week wrote a much-reported article in the Financial Times arguing that in order to stay safe we must give up our [right to] privacy. We must accept blanket surveillance of our online communications. He is frustrated that the large US tech firms that dominate the social media world are uncooperative. Consequently they are the ‘command and control networks of choice’ of international terrorists and paedophiles.

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? Here is a man whose job it is to do communication surveillance. In recent years – and certainly since Snowden – its legitimacy has been questioned. We may have asked, ‘in whose interests is this surveillance’? And if it is for us – citizens – then how would we know? We are never given the data that would tell us how effective it is in preventing attacks or the abuse of children.

Now, Mr Hannigan (right) has asserted that all of CGHQ’s surveillance is undertaken to protect us against attack from whomever orhannigan whatever. Again, there is no evidence that surveillance protects us, but the security services remain powerful arms of the state. The more surveillance they do, the more money they get. The more they convince us that only more surveillance can protect us – and we believe it – the more resources they will command and the less free we will be. And bearing in mind they tell us that surveillance is needed to keep us free, one wonders what kind of freedom they have in mind.

Naturally, the ‘if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear’ argument still resonates. But as Martha Lane Fox – one time government-appointed Tsar for digital inclusion and founder of lastminute.com – and anything but a crazy libertarian – said through a number of new and old media yesterday, “I would not want GCHQ to come and rummage in my front room and that is how I feel about whatever device I am using”. Moreover, the security services already have significant powers to investigate communication, not least through DRIP which a subservient UK Parliament rushed into law before the summer recess in 2014. Again, at the behest of the security services.

But what these people really dislike is the idea that ordinary people can encrypt their own communication. On the whole, our communication is unencrypted. The devices that we use are easily accessible to outside forces (with a few exceptions, notably Blackberry handsets). When we download an app we invariable sign away privacy in order to use it. But I do feel that I – and others – have a right to privacy and that the security services have enough power already to investigate any wrongdoing on my part. But they do need, first, to have sufficient evidence to get the warrant to invade my privacy. They are not the rights holders. We are.

Picture: GCHQ – MoD; Robert Hannigan – gov.uk

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