Sociologist, local councillor, activist from Malta

Monday, September 05, 2016

Privacy versus Security


Should policymakers give priority to privacy or to security? This question represents a key quandary of our times.  Reference to the film Jason Bourne, one of the global blockbusters of 2016, would help to illustrate this dilemma.
I will not discuss the entire plot of the film, nor the entire series, whether on film or in its original novel format. I will refer to a subplot which deals with the privacy vs security quandary.
In the film, CIA director Robert Dewey requires usage of the social media for mass surveillance against enemies of the state such as terrorists. He is scheduled to attend a public debate with Aaron Kalloor, the CEO of social media giant Deep Dream to discuss this issue.
Kalloor thinks otherwise and insists that the right to users’ privacy is sacred in the internet age. Yet he has a big problem. He had received secret funds from Dewey, and thus risks losing all legitimacy on his claims.
This subplot then develops to a spectacular climax, which is beyond the remit of my article.
That state agencies around the real world are involved in surveillance is no news. Actually, we are also experiencing the opposite too, when hacktivists like Wikileaks expose state secrets.
Surveillance also takes place for commercial purposes. And it seems that no social media site is free from this practice.
Take WhatsApp Messenger. This smartphone service has recently declared a user base of over one billion clients worldwide, and for many, its services are increasingly replacing SMS and phone calls. Through WhatsApp, one can freely send text messages, documents, images, videos, audio messages and locations to other users.
Like Aaron Kalloor in Jason Bourne, WhatsApp was originally committed to ensure that its data is private. When the company was purchased by Facebook in 2014 for $19.3 billion, the company emphasised that “respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA, and we built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible”.
What if the ‘good life’ is threatened? Would we be ready to sacrifice some privacy to be more secure?
Yet, anyone using WhatsApp knows that this promise now seems to be jeopardised. A few weeks ago it transpired that it will start giving information to Facebook. The latter will be able to see WhatsApp users’ phone numbers, thus allowing the tracking of people who use both sites, and ultimately providing information for ads.
It is now being argued that even those opting out of WhatsApp’s new terms are not exempt from the sharing of information from one company to the other. Before one concludes that there is some global conspiracy to brainwash internet users, one should keep in mind that such sharing of information may be for legitimate use, such as combating spam. But where is the line going to be drawn?
In the meantime, in another parallel with Jason Bourne, the US government and Apple were recently entangled in a controversy on access to data in terrorists’ phones.
Across the Atlantic, France and Germany have recently been reported as wanting the EU to force technology companies to provide access to private messages. The two countries, which have experienced terrorist attacks in the recent past, reportedly want access to such information so as to monitor suspected terrorists.
And this takes us back to the privacy vs security paradox of our times. Is surveillance of internet users acceptable? In the affirmative, to what extent should this be allowed? And who is to decide on this?
Liberal democracies such as those in the EU give priority to civil liberties such as the right to privacy and individuality. Irrespective of one’s social background, one has the right to one’s identity so long as it is within the remits of law. This is a key aspect of the ‘good life’ which makes Western societies so attractive worldwide.
Yet, what if the ‘good life’ is threatened?  Would we be ready to sacrifice some privacy to be more secure?
I think that a key factor in this quandary is trust in democracy and state institutions.
The same governments which try to balance out privacy with security should ensure that governance is accountable, transparent and based on evidence. As we can see, good governance has rami­fications on our most basic interactions in everyday life.

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