Friday, October 22, 2010

Pressures on privacy

Footballers and Hollywood stars and celebrities of every kind generally get put on a pedestal and then knocked down. The same thing often happens with companies, too, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to be concerned about. Facebook, Twitter and Google have been media darlings, but we're beginning to see a reaction against them.

For example, this year has seen an increase in privacy concerns around web and social media technologies, particularly in Europe where German and Czech authorities have objected to Google's Street View product. As someone who regularly uses Street View and finds it invaluable, I'm not convinced that's the right battle to fight. Frankly, I don't (yet) see the problem in allowing web users to see on screen a dated view of what they could get by driving down my road.

But this week The Guardian has broken a story that concerns me more: a revival of UK Government plans to store email, text, internet and mobile phone details of everyone in Britain. According to the story, the £2bn (USD $3.1bn) plan is buried in the back pages of the strategic defence and security review published on Monday and confirmed by the Home Office.

Of course, as the article points out, many internet service providers keep all the traffic details of their subscribers' web and phone use for billing. But new legislation will also require them to collect and store for at least 12 months all third-party communications data that crosses their networks, including all traffic from sources such as GMail, Skype, Facebook and Twitter.

'The data includes all the "envelope" information such as who is contacting whom, when, where and how – but not the actual content of what was said or written. Interception of contents requires a separate warrant authorised by the home secretary.'

So, we're beginning to see twin pressures affecting our privacy: on the one hand, Facebook and Google and Twitter have business models that are driven by an insatiable thirst for data to target marketing at us. On the other hand, governments claim the threat of cyberwarfare attacks and terrorism to justify knowing more and tracking more closely.

It's claimed that the UK is now one of the most advanced surveillance societies in the world - ranked third after Russia and China. The average UK adult is now registered on over 700 databases and is caught daily on one of the 4 million CCTV cameras located on nearly every street corner in the country ... with the reporter concluding that "although he has nothing to hide, he certainly has something to fear…"

Celebrities lead the way in modelling the erosion of our expectations of privacy. But expect to see increased public concern as the reality of the commercial and state pressures becomes clear.