Privacy advocates are spoilt for choice these days about what to complain about – privacy invasions by business, or privacy invasions by the authorities? Over the last year or so, I’ve written regularly about both – whether it be my seemingly endless posts in recent weeks about Facebook, or the many times I wrote last year about the wonderful Snoopers’ Charter – our Communications Data Bill (which is due to re-emerge after its humiliation fairly shortly).
It’s a hard one to answer – and I tend to oscillate between the two in terms of which I think is more worrying, more of a threat. And then a new story comes along to remind me that it isn’t either on its own that we should be really worried about – it’s when the two work together. Another such story has just come to light, this time in The Guardian
The essence of the story is simple. Raytheon is reported to have developed software “capable of tracking people’s movements and predicting future behaviour by mining data from social networking websites”. Whether the details of the story are correct, and whether Raytheon’s software is particularly good at doing what it is supposed to do isn’t really the main point: the emergence of software like this was always pretty close to inevitable. And it will get more effective – profiling will get sharper, targeting more precise, predictions more accurate.
Inevitable and automatic
What’s more, this isn’t just some ‘friendly’ policemen or intelligence operatives looking over our Facebook posts or trawling through our tweets – this is software, software that will operate automatically and invisibly, and can look at everything. What’s more, it’s commercially produced software. Raytheon says that ‘it has not sold the software – named Riot, or Rapid Information Overlay Technology – to any clients’ but it will. It’s commercially motivated – and investigations by groups such as Privacy International have shown that surveillance technology is sold to authoritarian regimes and others around the world in an alarming way.
If you build it, they will come
The real implication is that when software like this is developed, the uses will follow. Perhaps it will be used at first for genuinely helpful purposes – tracking real terrorists, finding paedophiles etc (and you can bet that the fights against terrorism and child abuse will be amongst the first reasons wheeled out for allowing this kind of thing) – but those uses will multiply. Fighting terrorist will become fighting crime, which will become fighting disorder, which will become fighting potential disorder, which will become locating those who might have ‘unhelpful’ views. Planning a protest against the latest iniquitous taxation or benefits change? Trying to stop your local hospital being shut or your local school being privatised? Supporting the ‘wrong’ football team?
Just a quick change in the search parameters and this kind of software, labelled by the Guardian a ‘google for spies’, will track you down and predict your next moves. Big Brother would absolutely love it.
A perfect storm for surveillance
This is why, in the end, we should worry about both corporate and government surveillance. The more that private businesses gather data, the better they get at profiling, even for the most innocuous of purposes, or for that all too common one, making money, the more that this kind of data, these kinds of techniques, can be used by others.
We should worry about all of this – and fight it on all fronts. We should encourage people to be less blasé about what they post on Facebook. I may be a bit extreme in regularly recommending that people leave Facebook (see my 10 reasons to leave Facebook post) because I know many people rely on it at the moment, but we should seriously advise people to rely on it less, to use it more carefully – and to avoid things like geo-location etc (see my what to do if you can’t leave Facebook post). We should oppose any and all government universal internet surveillance programmes – like the Snoopers’ Charter – and we should support campaigns like that of Privacy International against the international trade in surveillance technology.
Facebook and others create a platform. We put in all our data. Technology firms like Raytheon write the software. It all comes together like a perfect storm for surveillance.