By David Binder
Imagine this, a Western government in the name of wanting to make sure we’re not plotting a terrorist atrocity, or ‘having our best interests at heart’ by ensuring we’re adhering to ‘British values’ introduces legislation to monitor our private lives through our TV’s, mobile devices, tablets and so on by actually listening to our conversations, recording our keystrokes and listening into our phone calls. Worse still, imagine the Government can identify who is typing the anti-government message, voicing their discontent to their loved ones in the kitchen or over the phone to their best friend from school. Now, imagine they go one step further and directly intervene in the lives of those ‘not conforming’ through ‘re-education’, punishment and whatever else.
Whilst it would of course be remiss of me to claim that such behaviour is widespread in our Government and private sector at the moment, recent stories emerging regarding the ever increasing march of technology and its impact on our privacy, freedom of expression and other civil liberties are cause for concern.
Here’s one such story that emerged earlier this week. World technology giant Samsung revealed on Monday that some of its ‘SMART TV’s’ can listen into private conversations and transmit their content to ‘third party sources.’ Nope, this story didn’t come from satirical news website ‘The Onion’, it’s 100% authentic, garnering news coverage from various ‘real’ news sources around the globe.
At the risk of scaremongering, Samsung do say that this information is not held for any period of time and is totally secure. Yet, many will see an ominous resemblance here to George Orwell’s infamous ‘1984’ novel, whereby ‘telescreens’ were placed in every citizen’s home allowing the Government to keep its subjects under constant surveillance, thus eliminating any prospect of a rebellion against Oceania. What is more, the Korean giant’s defence of ‘well just don’t have private conversations in front of the TV then’ is hardly convincing, and would be quite funny were it not actually what they essentially said!
Hence, whether it be the unrelenting development of technology, the rise in real, imagined or perceived terrorist threats around the world, or the insatiable public and private sector desire for our personal data (in order, allegedly to provide a better service) the balance between to personal freedom and privacy is increasingly under scrutiny, and some would argue, under attack.
Governments all over the World are certainly pledging a tougher stance in regard to fighting terrorism. In the UK for instance, David Cameron has pledged new laws in order to break into terrorist’s communications devices. Even before this announcement, anti-terror legislation is already making its way through Parliament and would, if successful, require internet service providers to collect and retain additional data about their users, including communications data and/or other relevant data which can be used to identify the user of a particular IP address any particular time.
This movement toward greater surveillance began under New Labour and shows no signs of abating under a future government of whatever hue. Whilst it’d be wrong to make sensationalist claims that the Government is in the business of controlling all its citizens minds (its main interest so far arguably being in controlling terrorist threats), in the interest of our most cherished freedoms we must remain vigilant. Put simply, a future Government whilst protecting the lives of UK citizens must be the party of civil liberties. In placing freedom at the heart of its data, communications and anti-terrorism policy framework, the next party or parties that hold the keys of power can hopefully reassure voters weary of both New Labour’s excesses in the past and current Coalition legislation that they truly do care about upholding freedom.
Furthermore, our parties need to ask themselves whether (in policy terms) the ends justify the means. In other words, whilst Governments and Corporations may justify privacy breaches (legal or otherwise) in the name of equality, national security or otherwise, do such ends, however admirable, justify the use of any number of legislative or judicial levers in order to achieve that outcome? In terms of using technology in such an intrusive way, the answer must be surely be no.
We also as citizens must also be willing to ask whether the sacrosanct freedoms of privacy and freedom of expression are worth sacrificing at the altar of technological advancement, Come to think of it, do we really need SMART TVs? Was there anything wrong with the bog standard LCD/LED/Plasma/Old School ‘Non SMART’ TV?
In an ideal world of course, we would be able to have our cake and eat it. Technological advances enhancing our quality of life would be freely enjoyed without losing our key freedoms. In any case, governments must realise that as our world becomes increasingly interconnected by technology, threats to national security and shared policy goals, liberty must be protected. If this essential entitlement is excessively eroded, we risk losing much of what it means to be human. This simply cannot be allowed to happen.