Back in 1999, Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, told journalists that privacy was dead.
“You have zero privacy anyway,” he said, “Get over it.”
In internet terms, 1999 was a very long time ago. It was before Facebook even existed. Before the iPhone was even a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye. Google was barely a year old. And yet even then, serious people in the computer industry had already given up on privacy.
The reactions of many politicians around the world – and particularly in the US – to the revelations of the activities of the NSA, GCHQ and others has echoed this sentiment. Privacy was already dead, many of them seem to be assuming, the only problem here is transparency. ‘We should have told you what we were doing’ seems to be one of the most common lines, ‘and we’ll find a way to be more open about it in the future’. The big companies echo that line, wanting to be allowed to say more about when they’ve given over information, about how many requests for data there have been and so forth – rather than calling for anything stronger, rather than saying that they in any way resisted the authorities desire for surveillance. Indeed, the suspicion of many observers from outside the industry is that rather than resisting government agencies’ surveillance plans, some of these companies were actively cooperative or even complicit.
It’s not just about transparency
For me, that’s not enough. This shouldn’t be an issue of transparency – because it’s not just transparency over surveillance and privacy that matters, it’s the surveillance itself. At the Society of Legal Scholars conference in Edinburgh yesterday, I listened to Neil Richards talk about the dangers of surveillance (his written paper can be found here) and found myself in total agreement. Surveillance in itself is harmful to people, in a number of ways – it can chill action and even thought, it creates and exacerbates power imbalances, it allows for sorting and discrimination, and it can and often is misused for personal or inappropriate reasons.
There are benefits to surveillance too – and reasons that surveillance is sometimes necessary – but the kind of total and generally secret surveillance that seems to be being performed by both government agencies (and the NSA in particular) and corporations seems to be totally out of balance – and it seems to be based, to some degree, on the assumption that privacy is dead anyway. For many, the only question seems to be how they can convince people to ‘get over it’. That is not enough. Yes, privacy may be dead – but if it is, we need to resurrect it. It may take a miracle – but it still needs to be done.
Can privacy be resurrected?
In an excellent article in the Guardian, Bruce Schneier talks about the role of engineers in the process. As he puts it:
“By subverting the internet at every level to make it a vast, multi-layered and robust surveillance platform, the NSA has undermined a fundamental social contract. The companies that build and manage our internet infrastructure, the companies that create and sell us our hardware and software, or the companies that host our data: we can no longer trust them to be ethical internet stewards.
This is not the internet the world needs, or the internet its creators envisioned. We need to take it back.
And by we, I mean the engineering community.”
Schneier knows what he is talking about – he is one of the real experts in the subject – and his piece is both compelling and surprisingly hopeful. Effectively he suggests – and I think he’s right – that there could be a way to re-engineer the internet, to take out the back doors, to rebuild the infrastructure of the internet so that surveillance is no longer the paradigm.
Schneier’s piece outlines what might be a technical route to the resurrection of privacy – but that resurrection needs more than just the technical possibility. It needs action from more than just the engineering community – it needs a political will, and that means that it needs action from a whole lot of us. It needs lawyers, advocates and academics to continue to challenge the legal justification for this kind of surveillance – the defeat last year of the Communications Data Bill (the UK’s ‘Snoopers’ Charter’) demonstrates that this kind of thing is possible. It needs journalists and bloggers to keep on writing about the subject – to make sure that surveillance and privacy isn’t just of passing interest, forgotten after a few weeks.
It needs ordinary people to keep taking an interest – because, ordinary people can and do make a difference. They make a difference to the companies who operate on the internet – Microsoft’s recent advertising campaign’s strap-line was ‘your privacy is out priority’, demonstrating that they at least thought that the idea of privacy could be a selling point, even if their complicity in the PRISM programme has made the words seem pretty hollow. Ordinary people matter to politicians, at least when election time comes around – and it’s worth noting that in the presidential debate in the German elections happening right now, the candidates were asked specifically about NSA surveillance. There IS public and political interest in this subject. The more there is, the more chance there is of action.
Ultimately, we need to challenge the very assumptions that underlie the surveillance. We need to challenge the idea that the threat of ‘International Terrorism’ is so great that almost anything that can be done to fight it should be done without question or fetter. That’s necessary for more than just privacy, of course, as a vast array of our civil liberties have been curtailed in the name of counter-terrorism – but it is still necessary.
Is it all doomed to failure?
It might be that privacy really is dead. It might be that resurrecting it is effectively impossible – and it will certainly be incredibly difficult. The strength of the security lobby, the power of those in whose interests the surveillance is carried out, from the commercial to the governmental, is more than intimidating. The whole thing may be doomed to failure – but even if it is, it’s a fight worth fighting. There’s a huge amount at stake. And miracles do happen.