Spies, Lies and Tapping the Lines – Is Privacy the Price We Pay For Technology?

I often wonder if when George Orwell sat down to write 1984 all those years ago, he honestly believed that his dystopian vision of the future was to become a reality, or if the novel featuring overwhelmingly pervasive government surveillance was simply him toying with a worst-case scenario.

Technology has now arrived at the point where it affords us things we once thought to be impossible. The things we can do today – whether instantly communicating with someone on the other side of the planet, or creating tiny civilisations that live on our desktop – were once the stuff of science fiction. But, such advancements come at a price, or, in the words of Peter Parker’s wise old Uncle, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

The unfortunate truth is that any technological progression brings with it the potential of use for nefarious purposes. We all willingly throw our information into the world via the web, with often limited knowledge of where it ends up or who gets to see it. By using social networks, emails, mobile phones, and the internet itself, we are leaving a trail, making it easier for us to be monitored by anyone with the knowhow – be they online marketers, cyber criminals or the government itself.

For instance, as I write this from my living room, I already know where one of my colleagues is eating her lunch – a fact I discovered accidentally simply by glancing at an open browser tab. What more could I find out if I needed to?

In most cases this may not necessarily be a bad thing. I’m sure lunch destinations aren’t on my colleague’s list of top-secret, need-to-know information and I seriously doubt anyone intercepting my emails would glean anything of vital importance from the spam I continually receive from Laura Ashley. But, by making it easy to find out where we are, what we’re doing, who we’re with and what we’re saying to them, we seem to have opened a window that the world’s press, governments and criminals are intent on turning into a door.

Ask yourself, how much do you know about what happens to your email once you hit send? Have you ever really read a privacy policy? Where do text messages end up when the recipient fails to receive them? In recent months we’ve seen in excruciating detail how the aptly named ‘hacks’ at the national press have infiltrated mobile phone and email accounts in order to fill the inches of their gossip columns. But, as Hugh Grant buttons up his suit this afternoon to play his role as the celebrity crusader against The Daily Mail and the like, is it possible that our governments are up to the same tricks?

Two stories have led to this ponderance: one takes place on our own doorstep, but for the first we must travel to the deserts of Utah, where, in the heart of Mormon country, the NSA is building a ‘listening centre’ which upon completion will encompass 1 million square feet. For an agency who have previously been found to be listening in on the private communications of their own country’s citizens, using windowless buildings hidden in plain sight that wouldn’t be out of place in a spy novel, this understandably has some people a little nervous.

Those of you interested in some quite mind-blowing details can read the full story here. But closer to home things aren’t looking all that different. New legislation to be incorporated in the near future seems designed to allow the government unprecedented access to eavesdrop on citizens of the UK.

Here’s the opening line from a BBC News article:

“The government will be able to monitor the calls, emails, texts and website visits of everyone in the UK under new legislation set to be announced soon.

“Internet firms will be required to give intelligence agency GCHQ access to communications on demand, in real time.”

As you’d expect, the official purpose of this scheme is to tackle threats of terrorism and cybercrime, but others see the new laws in a far more sinister light, such as conservative MP and man so David-y they almost named him twice, David Davis: “What this is talking about doing,” he told the BBC, “is not focusing on terrorists or criminals, it’s absolutely everybody’s emails, phone calls and web access.”

His views were echoed by Director of the Big Brother Watch campaign group, Nick Pickles, who claimed the move to be “an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran”.

Scary stuff, or a step towards ensuring vital new techniques in fighting organised crime?

The truth is the world is changing. Whereas intelligence officers would once worry about people intercepting a folder of classified documents they now worry about people stealing gigabytes of data within seconds from the other side of the world. Similarly, as more and more ways for criminals to network, communicate and carry out misdeeds surface, methods must be found to counteract the threat. Unfortunately, what goes hand-in-hand with this is a threat to our own civil liberties.

You can probably see why it’s hard to tackle this subject without straying into the tin-foil-hat wearing territory of conspiracy theory, but at the very least these latest developments are food for thought. The question is; if our private correspondence and information is no longer private, what will the consequences be? Have we all shared information we wouldn’t want others to see? In short, have we placed too much faith in technology?


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