The question of a right to digital privacy never seems far from the news headlines. In the last month, for example, FBI director James Comey told the press that the American people have no right to what he called ‘absolute privacy’.
Three days later, coming from the opposite end of the spectrum of opinion on this matter, the inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, wrote of his dismay at the damage being created by widespread data collection and ‘extreme laws’ that remove people’s rights to privacy online.
More recently still, following the Westminster attack of March 22, UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd called for technology firms to work more closely with the government to help its efforts in preventing acts of terrorism. Notably, she has singled out encrypted messaging apps.
“It is completely unacceptable,” she told the BBC on March 26. “There should be no place for terrorists to hide. We need to make sure that organisations like WhatsApp – and there are plenty of others like that – don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other.”
Is it possible to find any middle ground between these seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints?
People’s feelings about privacy online are inevitably and inextricably linked with the way they feel about the topic in the physical world. One of the many benefits of civilisation is that they get to enjoy some privacy as a fundamental right of passage.
People are not allowed to wander into others’ houses uninvited to see what the owner is like, what they’re up to, to catalogue their possessions, or read their diary.
When people discover that this privacy has been unjustifiably compromised, such as in recent cases of connected children’s toys and Smart TVs, recording, storing and analysing conversations that happen around them, without the knowledge of their owners, they feel violated.
And the consequences of breaches to privacy in the digital world can be a lot worse than when this happens in the physical world. People rarely have an effective right of redress and once they have lost control of their data, it can be endlessly disseminated and reproduced.
>See also: Why 2017 will be the year of privacy
But because every society involves compromises for the greater good, they also recognise that there are limits to privacy. If a local crime lord, subject to a search warrant, attempts to prevent that search from happening by building a castle with a moat, then most people would agree that the police would be within their rights to acquire battering rams and siege engines to make short work of such defences.
In the digital world, however, these battering rams are sometimes of no avail. The Public Key encryption techniques used by apps like WhatsApp are impregnable in practical terms – and thus thwart security agencies.
Digitally savvy criminals and terrorist groups are able to communicate without fear that their messages will be intercepted or recovered by the authorities.
Police and intelligence forces in the digital world, despite a highly developed apparatus for general monitoring and interception, lack the powers they possess in the physical world to thoroughly investigate genuinely dangerous individuals and groups.
The common norms and shared moral imperatives that allow society to operate don’t currently hold in the digital world. Both James Comey and Tim Berners-Lee are addressing a disconnection between these values and what is happening online.
People deserve the same levels of digital privacy they are afforded elsewhere. But at the same time, the state must be able to protect citizens using the equivalent of the investigatory rights in force in the physical world. Their views aren’t opposite, despite initial appearances: they share a common disquiet at the ways in which commonly accepted values are disregarded in people’s digital lives.
The fortress and the greenhouse
People are naturally inclined to draw analogies between digital places and places they’re used to in the physical world. However, it would be a mistake to regard a social network account as akin to a home on the internet.
Or, not one anyone would ever want to live in. The apartments of social media have glass-walls, with Matrix-style tubes coming out connecting it directly to advertisers, snoopers and other undesirables.
At the same time, and at the other extreme of privacy, people can build castles in the digital world, with walls too thick and moats too deep for the legal authorities to ever breach.
These comparisons to the physical world may be wearing a little thin, but they do help to illustrate, at least, two extremes of privacy in digital life. And perhaps the strangest thing it illustrates is the extent to which it seems people are almost entirely living their digital lives at one extreme of privacy or the other.
Striking the balance between privacy, profit and national security
It seems that there are multiple unexploited opportunities for budding entrepreneurs to find a place between the extremes and strike a balance between privacy and profit, while also addressing the needs of national security. There’s an almost empty plain between the castles and the glass apartments where many other types of digital dwellings might be erected.
There is already a rising tide of public concern over internet privacy and the abuses of privacy, which are allowed to happen by social networks. For many people, it seems, finding a digital home that has an actual lock on the door and windows with curtains, so they can aspire to the standards of privacy that exist outside the Internet, is at least beginning to look attractive.
As suggested, there are multiple models, some tried and others not. Advertising is not the only revenue model that exists for online communities. By no means all advertising models rely on complete access to all user data.
But other revenue options seem to be forgotten. As a very relevant example, the very first social network, The Well, continues to thrive after more than three decades online, funded almost entirely by user subscriptions.
The point is that this middle ground is ready to be colonised. And it’s actually in working with technology firms to establish this space that government has a clear role in arbitrating between the demands of common privacy and the ability of the police and intelligence services to operate effectively.
The role of government here is to lead, to set standards and ensure all parties abide by those standards. Not all people want or need an impregnable castle; but that doesn’t mean they’re perfectly happy to be exposed to all and sundry in a glass box either. People’s digital lives should not have to be reduced to binary decisions.
Sourced by Paran Chandrasekaran, CEO of Scentrics