Solving the Big Brother Problem that affects every one of us

24 January 2014, 01:00 UTC | United Kingdom, United States of America
A projection of binary code around the shadow of a man holding a laptop computer in an office © REUTERS
By Salil Shetty - Secretary General of Amnesty International

The ‘Big Brother Problem’ has helped kick off discussions about the most pressing problems today, as the World Economic Forum meeting gets under way in Davos, Switzerland. This is an important recognition of the urgency of the issue. It is one that affects every single one of us and is an area of law that needs to be resolved.

Some of the most memorable headlines of 2013 around the globe involved personal privacy, data security and intelligence gathering. But what has bothered me about the conversation to date is the way it has been framed by some defenders of mass surveillance programmes.

We must choose, they say, between security or privacy, protection or liberties. This is a simplistic way of looking at these issues, and has damaged our ability to identify sound public policies that strike a sensible balance. The question that should be asked is: is it right for the state to store, and share, information about our personal phone calls, emails and social media interactions…potentially indefinitely?

The answer, I hope, is one that no one can dispute. People have a right to privacy; governments should only be looking at our information if, and only if, they have probable cause to suspect wrongdoing.

Of course law enforcement agencies have an obligation to investigate potential crimes. But that duty isn’t licence to conduct a fishing expedition. Law enforcement agencies should not let their investigations become the electronic equivalent of a trawling net that indiscriminately scoops up everything that passes, with the catch put on ice indefinitely.

The surveillance of metadata tracks every instance in which we email, speak to, or communicate with someone online. It is no different than having someone spying on your house and monitoring who comes in and who leaves, at all times of the day. This is an unacceptable breach of privacy. We must find a more practical way to square the privacy vs. security argument.

A starting point would be significantly greater openness about the scope of what is being monitored, and why. We cannot assess the extent of the threat to our privacy and determine what additional safeguards are needed unless we know what governments are collecting and what they do with that information.

This need for additional safeguards is clearly demonstrated by the way GCHQ, the UK’s surveillance headquarters, is operating. GCHQ evades legal scrutiny by outsourcing its surveillance operations to the USA, asking the National Security Agency (NSA) to do what it itself would never be able to do.

The NSA, in turn, has grown into one of the most terrifyingly powerful government bodies in the world. Since 9/11, it has essentially been given a blank cheque to expand its sphere of influence exponentially, without any fear of oversight or transparency.

It was welcome news on Friday to hear President Obama affirming the need to safeguard the privacy of people, both in the US and around the world. The President’s acknowledgements are a step in the right direction, after a disappointing year of revelations regarding the extent of the US’s intelligence gathering.

However, the truth of the matter is, the President will still retain the power to authorise surveillance activities without having to answer to judicial review, and the future of bulk metadata collection remains unclear. Despite the President’s signal that he is prepared to recognise the privacy rights of those of us who live outside the USA, his policy falls short on specifics.

There is no doubt that striking the right balance between privacy and security requires careful, thoughtful analysis. Policy makers need to take a long, hard look at the choices they’ve made that have created a world of Big Brother states. Looking to the future, my hope is that our governments will not use rhetoric about security as any further justification for sacrificing a fundamental human right: the right to privacy.

International Region: