Tiffany Jenkins: We must protect right to privacy

We tweet pictures of our tea and IS uploads videos of military successes. Picture: Getty
We tweet pictures of our tea and IS uploads videos of military successes. Picture: Getty
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The head of GCHQ wants co-operation by technology firms in fighting terror, but it is vital we protect our freedoms, writes Tiffany Jenkins

AS SOME of us post photographs of cute cats on Facebook or use WhatsApp to arrange a drink with a friend, terrorists use new technology to mastermind the end of our world. Whilst in the past extremists used the web to link up anonymously, to organise in a way that is untraceable, Islamic State (IS) is taking its media strategy to another level. It is using the internet publicly, openly, like a billboard, to promote itself. This in itself is an interesting, if alarming, development.

We tweet pictures of our tea and IS uploads videos of military successes, cannily using hashtags that have included Ebola, iPhone6 and the World Cup, piggybacking on what is trending, increasing its reach. IS directs tweets at the world’s media – the BBC, CNN – and posts real-time footage from battles. This is not the use of the dark web to do things behind the scenes, stuff we don’t know about, though no doubt they do that too, but a major PR campaign. And it is one that has been spectacularly successful, for it has created a major flap of reaction in the West, which has ramifications for us all.

These media tactics are the cited reason for the call from Robert Hannigan, the new head of GCHQ,, for “greater co-operation” with security forces from technology companies. Writing in the Financial Times – something the head of the spooks has never done before (it’s only recently that we have been able to know their names) – Hannigan called for “greater support” from the private sector, especially technology companies, in monitoring and investigating terror. Hannigan justified this on the basis that the web doesn’t just host violent extremism and paedophilia, it facilitates it. Tech companies have become the “command-and control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals”, he said. He then called for a “mature” and “public debate” on privacy.

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You know that when the head of the spies calls for a public debate on privacy that we will get no such thing. They have probably concluded they need more powers. In fact, we now know they snoop more often in more arenas than we were previously aware of. The Edward Snowden leaks about international surveillance techniques revealed that GCHQ monitors all sorts of information collected by the US National Security Agency without having a warrant.

Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, a warrant is not required to seize certain communications data. Our security services may well have a profile of what we have been doing online: e-mails, internet searches, hits on whatever link takes our fancy, and they can keep this data without needing a warrant for two years. Nowhere seems safe: we have just discovered that legally privileged communications between clients and lawyers have been intercepted by the intelligence services: they are busy.

Indeed, you have to wonder what the security service does with all this data. Is it that useful? Surely too much material is seized in a cavalier fashion to be of any use, creating a needle-in-the-haystack problem. Surely there is just too much to sift through. But still, it sounds like the security services want more powers, more information, or for this eavesdropping to be legitimate and accepted – because Hannigan followed his suggestion for a debate on privacy with this sentence: “But privacy has never been an absolute right and the debate about this should not become a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions.”

This public call from Hannigan could be a ploy to make it look like GCHQ is doing something about terror – the kind of thing it is really already doing – with a spin that benefits technology companies. These firms want to convince the public – who just want to be able to have a chat without someone else listening in – that they are not doing the spooks’ bidding, and that Facebook or Twitter, whichever company it is, cares about our privacy, when it seems they sometimes do, but often don’t.

Regardless of the actual position of the tech companies, we cannot rely on them to care about our privacy. Why should they when they are just social media companies trying to run a successful business? We have to defend the privacy of our online activity and our right to not have GCHQ listen in to our conversations with our lovers, colleagues, boss or whatever premium rate telephone number tickles our fancy. We have to argue that they cannot watch us as we wander about online when we think we are alone in our bedroom.

Those in favour of letting GCHQ access our communications data suggest that we shouldn’t be afraid if we have nothing to hide. They are wrong. It’s not just that this kind of power can, will be, and has been abused: if we lose our right to privacy, we lose our humanity. To become autonomous individuals who function well in public, we need to have some control over what others know about us. We need to be able to be alone, so we can take time out from the world, relax and assess things without someone – some authority with significant power – looking over our shoulder. Only in private can we be properly vulnerable. Only in private can we self-evaluate.

This is not to underestimate the serious threat that IS and criminal groups present. We are living in scary times and extremism needs to be tackled. But thus far it is the reaction from the security services and the politicians to these developments that has been threatening. The authorities blame technological advances, but the terrorists are succeeding at the oldest game in the book, one that doesn’t require fibre optics. They are succeeding at psychological warfare. That leaders in the West are freaking out and clamping down on our freedoms because some evil-doers can use technology effectively to market their cause suggests we are too easily terrorised.

It should take more than the savvy use of a hashtag to make us give up our secrets.

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