Renate Samson is Chief Executive of Big Brother Watch.
This year is the fifth anniversary of Big Brother Watch. We were conceived at the tail end of the Labour Government to raise awareness of the unimpeded attack on our civil liberties. Back in May 2010 when the Coalition was established we found ourselves enthused by their promises to roll back the surveillance state. But as is often the case, promises that are made in the heady days of marriage often don’t last when the challenges of life kick in.
To be fair, we have seen some positive steps forward, ID cards were scrapped, pre-charge detention reduced and 1.7 million DNA profiles have been deleted. The Home Secretary took a positive role in the issue of the extradition of Gary McKinnon and agreed to scrap the use of the word “offensive” from Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
But for every positive step forward we have seen many serious steps back, notably the introduction of the emergency DRIP Bill last year, this year’s Counter Terrorism and Security Bill and the ongoing and relentless calls for the Snoopers Charter.
Like many Governments, as they find themselves in power they make decisions far removed from the promises on which they campaigned and with world events and ongoing terror threats challenging the harmony of our country they turn to events to determine future laws.
So five years on we find that despite some positive steps the security versus liberty agenda is arguably more critical today than it was in 2010. And the calls for technology to save the day and keep us all safe are rife.
And yet for every proposal designed to keep us secure the flip side could make us more exposed than ever. Our understanding of what will keep us safe is muddled.
Let’s take our relationship with crime. Recent Office of National Statistics figures showed that statistically we are safer than ever. Crime is the lowest it has been for 34 years. Traditional forms of crime, namely theft and violence against the person, have fallen by 11 per cent in a year, based in part on an improvement in the reporting of crime. Despite these figures the public perception continues to be that crime is on the rise.
Whilst traditional crime is falling, cybercrime – crime which most of us don’t understand – is on the rise. Cybercrime includes internet crime, hacking and viruses, theft of mobile telephones and online fraud. We are rarely afraid of this type of crime because it is invisible, hard to define and difficult to report. It is an emotional crime which punishes us by wasting time and money and it costs the global economy over £200 billion a year.
As more of us go online, it may seem that the internet is hugely sophisticated and well organised. But in terms of the power of its possibilities it is still in its infancy.
The next step will be the Internet of Things. The concept of your home, your transport, your health, your work and your life being connected to everything everywhere already exists and is for many hugely appealing. At Davos, Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, said of the future “there will be so many IP addresses, so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing…it [the internet] will be part of your presence all the time.”
Before we know it mobile phones and computers will seem old hat compared to this future technology. But understanding the importance for security and privacy in these new advanced areas of technology is too often seen by the manufacturers as inconvenient, costly and likely to inhibit the opportunities of Big Data.
Placing our trust in technology may not be the right approach, yet many of us liberally hand over personal data not caring or knowing where it goes or to whom it is sold. We have faith “they” will look after this personal Digital DNA. Data Protection Regulations are hugely out of date, barely able to protect us in the world of social media let alone in a completely connected interactive society.
The need for modernisation of data protection is absolutely critical if we are to prepare for the future.
And then there is the Snoopers’ Charter and the arguments for access to our communications. If the world is to be completely interconnected online, the calls for unencrypted access to the who, where, when of all mobile and online communications will provide the state with insight into every single corner of our lives. Comparisons to it being no worse than reading the addresses on an envelope will be laughable. It will be the equivalent of handing over the keys to your house to an invisible stranger.
So as we struggle to comprehend the true threat of crime, and as we search ever harder for new ways to keep each other safe, it is vital that we do not submit ourselves to laws which will prevent one set of threats by exposing us to far greater vulnerabilities. If the future is to be completely connected, the issue of privacy will go far beyond the individual – it will be a critical factor in the economic wellbeing of the country as a whole. It may well be that privacy will be the true key to our security.