Event report: privacy and surveillance debate

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Free Speech Debate: Privacy and Surveillance

By Patrick Lyons

It is less than a year since US whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked secret data about US and British intelligence agencies to The Guardian and The Washington Post. This has sparked impassioned debate with governments, their agencies, civil liberties groups and tech companies defending their interests and reviewing their positions in relation to the exposed surveillance practices which affect hundreds of millions of people. MI6 Chief John Sawers said that the leaks have ‘put our operations at risk’ and David Cameron, speaking in Brussels in October said that Snowden is ‘helping enemies’. But most people do not use the Internet for nefarious activities so should security agencies be siphoning and harboring large amounts of data about us? What liberties are compromised and are we adequately protected by privacy laws? Have the leaks allowed us to have a necessary, informed debate at a crucial moment?

On Wednesday 11 December English PEN hosted a debate on Privacy and Surveillance with a panel comprising writer Alan Judd, former MI6 director for operations Nigel Inkster and Ian Brown, director of the Oxford Internet Institute. Chaired by an openly partial Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN.

Jo Glanville began with the story so far. RIPA, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act enacted in 2000, is, according to Nigel Inkster ‘designed to be flexible’. The protection of privacy under RIPA seems limited however with Inkster pointing out that ‘a huge amount of activity going on is barely, if at all, regulated’ with surveillance of personal data being international: ‘all countries distinguish between nationals and non-nationals’ for the purpose of providing protection of privacy under national law. Alan Judd asked: in terms of privacy ‘who is harmed?’ and ‘how is freedom of expression compromised?’ Although ‘difficult to measure’, Ian Brown and Jo Glanville pointed to the ‘chilling effect’ of knowing that our emails and phone calls might not be private. Even if we have nothing to hide, the fear of reprisal risks interfering with decisions we make about our lives. This interference affects what we say and who we say it to.

Snowden has made the security versus privacy debate one of the biggest stories of the day. Alan Judd’s astonishment that ‘someone so junior’ as Snowden, an NSA contractor, managed to download vast amounts of classified data suggests that individuals working for intelligence agencies have a huge amount of private information at their fingertips. It is perhaps a stroke of luck that Snowden escaped when he did.  Brown says that it was ‘critical’ for this debate to happen when it did so as to halt the ongoing collection of ‘Big Data’ – that is pools of data that the security agencies store for future use. Even if Big Data is, as Nigel Inkster contends, ‘neutral’, intelligence agencies ‘designed to serve the state’ are not.

The nub is whether the surveillance of data actually provides greater security. Is it working? Nigel Inkster defends the surveillance practices saying ‘that there is no counter-surveillance intelligence on terrorism that has not benefited from game-changing technology’. Brown suggests that there is ‘a lack of consensus’ whether the likes of America’s Information Awareness Office is working (the IAO is the brainchild of Robert Regan’s national security advisor Admiral John Poindexter and uses ‘data mining’ to examine troves of data for security risks). Alan Judd suggests, the government should be ‘more open about how and why [surveillance] is done’, but that has proven difficult when, for example, the European Commission has asked member states to show the security benefits and ‘states would not give examples’.


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