net.wars: Pro-choice

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 06 September 2002

Sometimes it takes a major academic effort to prove what we all already know.

Wendy M Grossman

A couple of days ago, Privacy International and the Electronic Privacy Information Center launched the 2002 of their annual report on the state of privacy worldwide. The 400-page report , like I say, tells us what we already knew: privacy has decreased worldwide in the last year.

The trend was already there even before the escalation of September 11. But it's fitting that the documentation of this aftershock has been released so close to the first anniversary of those attacks. September 11 and the added threat of terrorism has been the excuse for passing or expanding anti-privacy legislation in many countries, most especially the US itself and Britain.

In fact, it's the UK that the report singles out as the country with the most virulent trend towards mass surveillance. Apparently the "special relationship" the country - "enjoys" really isn't the right word, is it? -- experiences with the US mean it must feel the US's pain more intensely than the US does itself. It's odd that this should be the case, because on most issues the UK prides itself on not following the US's lead. I wish I had a plugged nickel for every time I've been told in connection with some pseudoscientific or paranormal belief -- alien abductions, creationism, angels -- that "it won't happen here" because British folks are too smart, sophisticated, sensible, and educated, as compared to us Americans, who are idiots, boors, credulous, and easily led. (I bring this up because today BBC Manchester asked if I'd be the token skeptic on a program about belief in angels.)

Yet Americans have steadfastly refused to be led by the rest of the world towards data protection laws. My being able to register my phone and fax numbers with the relevant preference services -- and have them actually removed from telemarketers' lists is the envy of American friends. Meanwhile, the UK has meekly surrendered itself to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act, the erosion of the right to silence, the mass proliferation of CCTV cameras, and even an electronic fingerprinting scheme for school libraries. Not that the US is doing so much better with the PATRIOT Act, the deployment of facial recognition systems that even the Department of Defense admits are only right 54 percent of the time, and increased wiretapping.

It all seems much worse written down in the language and style of a textbook. Because things happen so fast in the Internet world, time is attenuated. Something that's six months old feels like the last century; something that's three years old feels like it happened in the Victorian era. Seeing a review, however, reminds you that 1997 to 2002 is really a very short period of time in the sweep of history. It is especially a short time in which to have so many deductions from rights that had been established for centuries.

This is all why today (Friday, September 6, 2000) Privacy International is running a one-day conference on "Terrorizing Your Rights" at the London School of Economics. One session will discuss the report, of course. But the conference will also attempt to look into the impact of future technologies. Alberto Escudero Pascual , for example, who is speaking at the conference, has done fascinating work showing how easy it is to construct a comprehensive picture of someone's personal relationships solely from the location data generated by their mobile phone. Is there much doubt that "location privacy" is going to be the next lost frontier?

What is noticeable in both countries is how easily public opinion has been changed in the last 50 years. Orwell's 1984 took it for granted that its audience would find total surveillance shocking and unacceptable. And doubtless to someone from 1948 today's dataveillable and surveillable world would be that shocking. But we change step by mostly unnoticeable step, so that now the mantra used to sell privacy-invading legislation and technologies is echoed by many people: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." The notion that it is important to be able to choose privacy just because you want to seems to have decreasing force.

So often we trade the ability to protect our privacy for convenience, usually commercial convenience. Instead of untraceable cash we use traceable cheques or credit cards (and if we don't, for any amount over a couple of hundred pounds people look at us funny). We create databases of our preferences in food and drink by using loyalty cards in the interests of being able to shop over the Internet (Tesco's Internet site requires you to use a loyalty card) or save a few quid on purchases. How long, as prolific questioner Russell Brand suggested, before insurance companies start offering us a couple of percent off our premiums in return for mounting a video camera on our fender and turning in the pictures of any accident we happen to be near?

In Orwell's day the big fear was the government. In the last decade, the big trouble has been commercial companies. Now the biggest threat is the increasing alliance between the two.

*A public thank you to the reader who sent me a Rabbit with no identifying source this morning. Works beautifully.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).