The slippery slopes of privacy and data.

“If you haven’t done something wrong, then there’s nothing to worry about.”

We’ve all heard that right? When there’s a debate or a scandal happening about privacy or identity, like the emerging saga of the ‘Prism’ systems in the USA that have been harvesting our private data and allegedly been giving access to our intelligence services, thereby circumnavigating the legal process we have in this country for access to private data.

It seems like such a straightforward rebuke, a simple piece of logic. If you haven’t done anything wrong, or are not planning to do something wrong, then why should you be worried about the idea of the state accessing your private communications? At the end of the day, all they are going to find is that your ‘data’ is innocuous, innocent interactions about your daily life, of no consequence to national security.

The problem, for the unthinking who take this view, is that what we decided is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when it comes to the state, and whether we are subject to the authority of each and every law, is one of the oldest and most highly debated topics of philosophy, because it is one of the oldest and most highly debated issues that exists in humanity as we know it. Questions like, “why should we obey the state?”, “Who gave them authority over us (and when)?”, “When did I agree to these conditions and give my consent?” are as old as Plato and beyond.

And they are very important questions that lead to very interesting, if not clear, answers. In the example of ‘Prism’ and its fight against terrorism by harvesting our data, a few imaginary scenarios should start to highlight the problem.

The first one I will call ‘The Extreme Inheritor’ problem. Simply put, at some point at a future election, an extreme party manages to secure power. By extreme, I mean a party that has hard-line views. They may have only been voted in on one issue, but now they are in control of the whole state functions. And what do they inherit? An infrastructure that allows them to gather, filter and view all our correspondences on all our various online interactions. How will they use this data? Even if we believe the current administration to be a fair and just custodian of this information, only using it for the kind of threats we agree with, how can we be sure the new keepers will do the same? They may want to search out sympathisers who stand against their extreme view (which by matter of degree, given their position, is highly likely), and bring sanctions against them. They may have a very different concept of justice than you do, and what you thought was right and wrong before, has become inverted or has significantly shifted.

The next ramification could be a ‘Temptation Shift in the Custodians’. In this scenario, the existing administration discover, naturally, the new powers available to them, the scope and possibilities that it brings. Now that they can conceive of and examine the new options that arise from the powers granted to them, they are at least aware of the possibilities. To find a suitable analogy, suspend your beliefs, or lack of, and think of it as a ‘road to paradise’ that we discover, but we also find that it runs through all the temptations of hell. Do we trust the current leaders to not give into the temptations, now they travel so close to them and are in touching distance? How long can they travel down the long road with the whispering demons promising spoils and temptations in such close proximity? Would it not have been better to find a road that does not run this way at all, or if unavoidable, only runs past hell on the least occasions? Even if this road is shorter, is it worth the risk?

The third and final possibility is the ‘bribery, threats and collusion problem’. I have seen defenders of this invasion of privacy making comments like “If the government look into my online communications, they will probably knock on my door and tell me to get a life!”. Basically saying that the majority of us live such dull and uninteresting lives that there can be no value in any data gathered. Who would care that you were visiting your elderly relative that day? Or that you have a new partner? Or that you work for a cheese factory? On the face of it, this data may seem innocuous enough, supposing that you believe your life will forever not be of worth, that the world may never change around you, and that you will never be in a position to be bribed or threatened. Say however, something does change (heaven forbid), and you become aware of some corporate negligence that had led to the deaths of your colleagues, and you wish to report this. If there was an interested party who would prefer you not to, they now know your family arrangements, your loved ones who you hold dear, and the extent to which you would go to protect them. This is a small example, and you may think, not very likely. But as we don’t know the future, as terrible things happen naturally and by design, to think ‘it will never happen to me’ is just ignorance. It may never happen to you, but I warrant that anyone can be in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ regardless of how boring a life they aspire to lead.

The objections I imagine, will be made along the lines of ‘checks and balances’. Some agents, above moral corruption, will conceive and enforce measures in order to prevent the powers being abused. Yes, we may sail close to the rocks, but a ‘reliable navigator’ will make sure we never stray too far. This objection has at least two faults.

In the case of the ‘Extreme Inheritor’, remaining with the nautical theme, we would have to rely on the mutineers who have now taken over the ship, maintaining the ‘reliable navigator’. The likelihood of this is as unclear as the agenda of any group we can imagine taking power in the future. Most, if not all, administrations usually start their terms in power by making any constitutional shifts to the frameworks they operate within, usually in order to favour themselves and their causes. Often these changes, concerning as they do a host of specific and convoluted legal and bureaucratic decree’s, go unnoticed by the general electorate, and like most decisions, are not passed by referendum. It is easy to imagine the extreme inheritor blatantly or subtlety removing the checks and balances that were designed to prevent them abusing powers.

The second objection to the ‘reliable navigator’ in the case of the ‘Temptation shift of the custodians’ practically runs along the same lines as the first, though may be less dynamic and as a result more subtle as the temptation shifts towards the new position. I would argue that this is the most likely and most worrying scenario, as unlike the ‘extreme inheritor’, a shift of this sort would necessarily be made gradually and secretly, so as to maintain custody of the powers without protest. The aim would be to almost imperceptibly degrade or transform the role of the ‘reliable navigator’ over time, until it is now only reliably navigating us down a route we didn’t originally want to follow.

A further objection would be the case of ‘statutory underpinning’ or something similar, that aims to ensure that no succeeding government can tinker or change the operations and positions of the ‘reliable navigator’. To make them ‘locked out’ like black-box technology, a kind of immovable and unchangeable moral foundation to wit all future humanity must adhere to. To this I would say that we are over-reaching our temporal influence. To imagine we can set dictates now for the future of humanity, that will last as truth beyond such a time as our own generations have long since perished, is an absurd notion. To put in motion a boulder down a mountain because we live at the top and our villages are well clear of it, when we have no knowledge of the life in the slopes below, is irresponsible, presuming you have any concern for the future of our race.

To briefly bring this back to the real world examples, we also have questions of security versus commercial interests. The material gathered about our lives will undoubtedly be of great commercial value to private enterprise. You may not be concerned about receiving tailor made adverts to your desktop based on your browsing habits (as happens already), but even so, what if this data sheds enough light on our group habits as to allow price-fixing models and the distortion of the market beyond what we already endure now? This is more a case for political science that philosophy, but it is worth mentioning here as another example of unforeseen consequences.

I hope here to have shown the folly of adopting the ‘greater security means less liberty’ argument by highlighting what high risks such a statement, at least in this case, could lead to – namely a reduction both in security and liberty. It has too great a capacity to be ultimately self-defeating and we should not set such a risky precedent. If it has already began, as it seems to have been, it should be reversed immediately before these risks can be manifest.

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