Can we rely on tech firms to champion our rights?
Robert Hannigan, the director of GCHQ, has written a column for the FT. It’s exceptional in itself that a senior figure from the security services has stuck their head above the parapet, however, he’s not just stuck his head out, he’s fired a few shots at Silicon Valley too.
Privacy is one of the defining issues of our time. Barely a day goes without us being reminded about the volume of data about us that is being created and held by companies and governments.
So far, the momentum in the debate has been with the technology firms. They have sought to side with the public, placing themselves as defenders of privacy. Their messages tie-in nicely with the freewheeling, consumer-friendly connotations that we associate with anything that’s internet-related.
Hannigan takes a strong line. He says that, “However much they may dislike it, they [technology firms] have become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals.” He not only says he’s in favour of a debate around privacy but also clearly and firmly takes a position. He attempts to put some momentum behind the arguments of the security services.
This is not the only attempt by Britain’s security apparatus to engage people, Sir John Sawers, head of MI6, featured in a Lunch with the FT column a few weeks back. There is clearly a conscious effort being made to make the case for the security services’ to have access to the data held by technology firms.
It’s not surprising that companies and government agencies are publicly trying to get us to be on their side. However, as corporates and governments intensify their fight over access to data about us, there is a danger that the rights of individuals will get squeezed out.
Companies are placing themselves as the champions of privacy but there have been a number of instances where they have overstepped the mark in data collection and data use. Equally, governments are arguing that they need access to this data to keep us safe, but there are numerous examples of agencies abusing their powers.
There are a number of organisations and media outlets that champion the rights of individuals and the European Union is increasingly becoming a powerful mover in this space too. Yet, in the UK, as we see moves to opt out of pan-European human rights legislation, the concept of human rights seems to be falling out of favour.
Our right to privacy from both governments and companies risks being crushed as these two powerful interests escalate their fight over who gets to know what about us.