Who needs privacy?

You might be forgiven for thinking that this government is very keen on privacy. After all, MPs all seem to enjoy the end-to-end encryption provided by the WhatsApp groups that they use to make their plots and plans, and they’ve been very keen to keep the details of their numerous parties during lockdown as private as possible – so successfully that it seems to have taken a year or more for information about evidently well-attended (work) events to become public. Some also seem enthused by the use of private email for work purposes, and to destroy evidence trails to keep other information private and thwart FOI requests – Sue Gray even provided some advice on the subject a few years back.

On the other hand, they also love surveillance – 2016’s Investigatory Powers Act gives immense powers to the authorities to watch pretty much our every move on the internet, and gather pretty much any form of data about us that’s held by pretty much anyone. They’ve also been very keen to force everyone to use ‘real names’ on social media – which, though it may not seem completely obvious, is a move designed primarily to cut privacy. And, for many years, they’ve been fighting against the expansion of the use of encryption. Indeed, a new wave of attacks on encryption is just beginning.

So what’s going on? In some ways, it’s very simple: they want privacy for themselves, and no privacy for anyone else. It fits the general pattern of ‘one rule for us, another for everyone else’, but it’s much more insidious than that. It’s not just a double-standard, it’s the reverse of what is appropriate – because it needs to be understood that privacy is ultimately about power.

People need privacy against those who have power over them – employees need privacy from their employers (something exemplified by the needs of whistleblowers for privacy and anonymity), citizens need privacy from their governments, victims need privacy from their stalkers and bullies and so on. Kids need privacy from their parents, their teachers and more. The weaker and more vulnerable people are, the more they need privacy – and the approach by the government is exactly the opposite. The powerful (themselves) get more privacy, the weaker (ordinary people, and in particular minority groups and children) get less or even no privacy. The people who should have more accountability – notably the government – get privacy to prevent that accountability – whilst the people who need more protection lose the protection that privacy can provide

This is why moves to ban or limit the use of end-to-end encryption are so bad. Powerful people – and tech-savvy people, like the criminals that they use as the excuse for trying to restrict encryption – will always be able to get that encryption. You can do it yourself, if you know how. The rest of the people – the ‘ordinary’ users of things like Facebook messenger – are the ones who need it, to protect themselves from criminals, stalkers, bullies etc – and are the ones that moves like this from the government are trying to stop getting it.

The push will be a strong one – trying to persuade us that in order to protect kids etc we need to be able to see everything they’re doing, so we need to (effectively) remove all their privacy. That’s just wrong. Making their communications ‘open’ to the authorities, to their parents etc also makes it open to their enemies – bullies, abusers, scammers etc, and indeed those parents or authority figures who are themselves dangerous to kids. We need to understand that this is wrong.

None of this is easy – and it’s very hard to give someone privacy when you don’t trust them. That’s another key here. We need to learn who to trust and how to trust them – and we need to do our best to teach our kids how to look after themselves. To a great extent they know – kids understand privacy far more that people give them credit for – and we need to trust that too.

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