We live in an age of near-total surveillance. In a talk given earlier this week, Professor Jon Crowcroft argued that total surveillance of society is toxic, and that those who claim that ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’ are helping perpetuate a massive power imbalance which is doing harm to society.

Surveillance is toxic: it reduces everyone’s choice of behaviour to that which is acceptable to everyone else, for all time

Jon Crowcroft

It's often said that “If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear.” This argument, which is often used to justify the total surveillance of society, is based on the curious idea that things done in secret must necessarily be immoral, unethical or illegal.

It is also based on a reduction of any subtle notions of persona – we portray ourselves differently to others, depending on our relationship, or lack of relationship, with that person. None of us, not even the highest-profile celebrities, truly ‘lives in public.’

There is a long list of reasons why the ‘nothing to hide’ argument is false, but much of it stems from the power imbalance which occurs when private discussions are revealed to normally unconcerned listeners, whether those listeners are known or unknown.

What might happen after such an unwitting revelation creates genuine fear, uncertainty and doubt in the person whose information is being revealed. Much of that is due to the unseen power wielded by the great leverage provided by the internet, the NSA, GCHQ or any other member of the surveillance industrial complex.

Surveillance is toxic: it reduces everyone’s choice of behaviour to that which is acceptable to everyone else, for all time. There are many examples of this, ranging from the mildly embarrassing to the deadly. At the relatively benign end of the spectrum, there are numerous instances of private conversations by public figures being secretly recorded and shared, so that we’re now seemingly at the point where the most innocuous of comments can be used as a weapon if they are overheard by the wrong person. Think also of the numerous instances of public shaming, where people’s lives and careers have been shattered after one poorly-judged tweet. There are also far more serious implications for individuals involved in witness protection programmes, for instance: how can you hide people in a population where everyone is traceable?

We present ourselves differently to different people: our family, our close friends, our colleagues, our acquaintances, and people that we encounter – all are given different levels of trust, because there are different levels of shared experience. Context matters.

And because context changes over time, we need to control aspects of information about ourselves as it is seen by others. Indeed, we need to have obsolete data removed from their view – we need the right to change our mind.

Calling this is censorship is false. It is about a generalisation of the public’s ‘right to know,’ (or not know, in this case), or for an outdated, and likely wrong impression to persist, perhaps more powerfully than a recent one.

In general, the ‘public’ is a set of people who we can send information to. Most of these, most the time, do not have a ‘right’ to know. I have a right to share information or not. I can, and should, be the judge of what is a suitable context in a given situation. 

Perhaps we need a new, nuanced model of how freedom of speech and the public’s right to know should work without trumping privacy. Solutions could be based on copyright, custom/convention, or control, but should rest in the hands of the speaker, not the listener, in order to restore the power balance. A suitable combination of technology can tell us if people send our data further than we wish, and data protection laws with real teeth need to be passed, because of the heavily asymmetric power held by security agencies compared with the individual.

We can also age and remove from sight data that is no longer relevant, such as spent criminal records for old crimes, health records of no public interest, or financial information that is out of date.

Ideally, enforcement of these solutions should be partly social, but should include suitable independent organisations. GCHQ and other surveillance organisations are in no special privileged relation to most people. We need to incentivise them to do their job right. With great surveillance power comes even greater responsibility. We see reports of daily incidents of abuse of power in many of these organisations. If their culture doesn't change, we need to use more powerful means in order to restore sane behaviour. Google, Facebook and other internet companies aren't exempt either. Money doesn't confer rights, any more than counter-terrorism trumps all other rights.

Data, just because it can be copied without error, is not necessarily true in the first place, and it can become false, through a change in the law for example. Recall by humans, is revisionist, because context changes. Data without context is inherently false.

If you do care about what’s happening to your data, you want to know where it’s going and what’s being done with it. We want to see systems where people have agency over their data, giving them the ability to allow or prevent certain types of access.

While it may sometimes seem as if we live in an age where people accept their lack of privacy online, in reality, privacy is something which the vast majority of people value highly. We need to start thinking about how to build win-win scenarios where useful information can be easily shared, but where all of us can hold on to our privacy.

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