Cyberspace: Privacy is under threat. But do we know what we want?

In your opinion, in the current info age how thick or thin is the line between probably the justifiable collection of some data by governments and the disproportionate mass surveillance? Read few comments.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation, Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford University

Every society has to find a suitable balance between liberty and security, and this will lead to what a society feels is a justifiable collection of data. What I believe is happening is that many societies want to reduce risk and uncertainty, and this simply means more surveillance. More predictability and certainty in our lives means less liberty. If a society wants less liberty and more security, then in a democracy one has to accept that (up to a point). But I am not sure that we have had a open and robust debate about what more security and surveillance entails, and how much our freedom is curtailed as a result. That debate I believe we urgently need to have.

Daniel Baldino, Senior Lecturer, Politics & International Relations, University of Notre Dame Australia

It is a slippery slope.

In the post-9/11 era, many governments now regard their main responsibility and top priority as the protection of national security. Governments go to extraordinary lengths in their efforts to safeguard this important public good even as these efforts, like communications surveillance and similar practices and techniques, severely intrude on people’s privacy thus shrinking and encroaching on personal rights and opportunities such as free expression and opinion.

But as it stands, indiscriminate bulk surveillance has provided little return for either security or privacy. Encroachments of individual privacy has not been limited and controlled. Legal restrictions have been bent, ignored or evaded. Problematically,  meaningful regulation and oversight performances of this new era of executive overreach by groups like parliament or judges have been highly sporadic, non-existent or derisory.

Adam Henschke, Research Fellow, National Security College, Australian National University

I think the line between justifiable data collection and disproportionate mass surveillance depends on what you’re looking at. For instance, if the data that is collected is held very securely, and can only be accessed under exceptional conditions – warrant system for significant crimes like child exploitation and large scale terrorism – then the surveillance could be justified and harms (child exploitation, large scale terrorism) would not be disproportionate to the rights being overridden. However, if the data being collected was not held securely, could be accessed easily and with limited oversight, and for less significant reasons, then the mass surveillance would likely not be justified, and the rights violations would be disproportionate to the reasons for wanting the information.

In short, in some circumstances – child pornography and large scale terrorism – and with significant oversight – warrants – the surveillance can be justified. But in many other situations it won’t be.

Philip Branch, Acting Director, Centre for Advanced Internet Architectures, Senior Lecturer, Department of Telecommunications, Electrical, Robotics and Biomedical Engineering, Swinburne University of Technology

I think privacy as we understand it is very much under threat.

Mass surveillance is much easier now than in the past. So much of our lives are lived online when compared with twenty or thirty years ago. As well as the communications such as email, web browsing, instant messaging that we make or receive there are many other digital ‘traces’ we leave such as when we drive our car past a camera that can recognise our number plate, catch a tram and use our prepaid card to pay for the fare or interact with government agencies in other ways.

It’s not just governments who are engaging in a form of surveillance. Corporations also engage in monitoring our behaviour.  Our economic activities leave digital traces. Credit cards, shopper loyalty schemes, discount vouchers… All leave little titbits of information that can be aggregated into a greater understanding of our lives. There’s the famous story of Target deducing teenager was pregnant before her parents did.  The motivations are different but there’s still a lot of information gained into aspects of our lives that in the past were quite private.

What has also changed is the computing power to discern patterns within the digital trails we leave. (So called “big data”). As well as massive advances in communications technology and applications, techniques to bring together multiple pieces of information are now available. Governments (recently here in Australia and elsewhere) have introduced “data retention” schemes that collect data on the whole population. That coupled with all the other sources of information have the potential for large scale surveillance.


One Response

  1. I think it should be noted that there are some really positive uses of big data. For example collective the movement of car on the road, used to I for traffic apps. Data collection of this type has exactly the same privacy implications. As society we need to consider if we want absolute privacy, or compromise on some privacy to enable such examples of big data for the common good.

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