Government Surveillance, Security and Privacy: Does Security Always Win? (Part I)

In 1949 George Orwell penned a novel that described a world where government surveillance is all pervasive. When we read 1984 today we are struck by the remarkable, and sometimes chilling similarities between the dystopian vision of the author and the pervasive nature of mass government surveillance in 2017. However – does this mean that we are faced with an ‘either / or’ proposition? Can there be a reasonable and acceptable balance between the necessity for government surveillance in an ever more dangerous world and an individual’s right to privacy?

Can we, as individuals, manage to operate and live in a connected world and still retain some semblance of privacy where our online lives are subject to snooping by criminals, governments and commercial interests? This question is becoming ever more important as we realise that it is no longer feasible to go ‘off the grid’ and still maintain a ‘normal’ life. Governments across the globe cite the ever increasing risk of terrorism and security as justification for ever more broad surveillance powers. In these days of big data, this question is becoming even more urgent. In the days before big data it was possible to compartmentalise our lives. We all present a persona ( a ‘face’) to the world in our professional lives, a different one in our home lives and perhaps a third social persona in our interactions with friends. We may even have other personas on different social media platforms.

A single identity

Today we’re always online and plugged in, creating a stream of continuous data 24/7 and the separation of our personas simply isn’t possible anymore. Your LinkedIn, your Facebook, your Grindr, your Ashley Madison, your E-Harmony, all your tweets, all of your calls, your location data, your Fit Bit/wearables, all the apps that you download and all the data that goes in and out of those apps are recorded and they collectively define you and your life, particularly to governments, to companies and to criminals – and the Internet of things will only make it worse.

Four hundred years ago, Cardinal Richelieu reportedly said “if you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” When our lives are recorded as an on-going and continuous stream of data that we all generate every day from cradle to grave, how difficult would it be for a current or future government to find something in that stream that ‘violates’ a law? It would seem that Cardinal’s statement made 400 years ago is more true today than ever before.

The days of predictive intervention (before crime takes place) based on big data may not be far off. How many have seen the Hollywood blockbuster Minority Report? The premise of that movie was the ability to arrest somebody prior to them committing a crime based on a prediction of their behaviour. Think about that, if you have enough data about somebody, and enough processing power, you could potentially predict behaviour. If you can predict behaviour, while you may not make a pre-crime arrest you might, however, target law enforcement and physical surveillance assets on a person/group, or make an arrest if that person/group takes a step towards the completion of the predicted crime -which may not in fact be a crime in itself. We’re not that far off from that day.

Big data and government surveillance is not all bad

But big data and government surveillance and access isn’t all bad. Big data provides us with functionality never before possible. Convenience, communication, power, health monitoring, online banking – we experience the benefits of big data every single day. Many, many crimes, very serious crimes, are solved today as a result of lawful government access to cloud and device-based digital information. Electronic and surveillance communications solve many crimes, sometimes even on par with DNA evidence. In our desire to protect privacy, we must not forget that there is a legitimate place for lawful government surveillance and access of data through lawful process with adequate protection of our rights. The question is where to draw the line, and unfortunately today, we see many examples of governments around the world expanding their powers because technology enables such expansion. Technology should not be the driving factor when it comes to defining the power of governments as this will assuredly lead to the 1984 scenario of George Orwell.


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