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Patrick Harvie: Big Data comes at high price

Patrick Harvie MSP. Civil liberties are under threat from ever increasing surveillance

Patrick Harvie MSP. Civil liberties are under threat from ever increasing surveillance

  • by PATRICK HARVIE
 

This is the latest in a weekly series of indyref essays in which influential figures explore ideas related to the Scottish independence referendum.

AS I sit down to write this article there’s a story on the screen about Scotland’s new .scot domain. Inevitably, the referendum being just weeks away, this online expression of national identity has got the attention of some in the political blogosphere and of the campaigners. Yes Scotland and Better Together are both cited as “early adopters” of the new domain, and the Scottish Government is keen to become a gov.scot after the SNP’s seven years as a reluctant gov.uk.

The distinctly Scottish domain is no doubt welcome. For some organisations, particularly those marketing some aspect of Scottish culture or industry globally, the ability to add a short and memorable Scottish label to their web address will have its advantages.

But it is unfortunate that there has been far less public debate about the deeper issues which the internet age should force us to examine. If Scotland does choose to take responsibility for all aspects of our own government in September, Holyrood and St Andrews House will need to get to grips with them, and fast.

Most of the debate we’ve seen to date in this area has come under the headings of “digital participation” – mostly about getting more people online – and “digital skills”, which is about maximising the economic opportunities from businesses in this field such as the successful Scottish games industry.

Both of these objectives matter. However, they must be seen in a far wider context. For anyone who has found the impact of the internet age impressive so far, take a deep breath; it’s only just begun. Every generation finds the change taking place around it exciting and disconcerting, but the social, economic and cultural changes which will be driven by the smart, connected world that’s being built today will be breathtaking. We need to be thinking now about the positive and negative aspects.

Within my lifetime, we could be living in a world whose entire population has almost instant, almost free access to the sum total of human knowledge. We could also be living in a world whose entire population has lost any meaningful concept of privacy and lives under permanent 24-hour surveillance.

We could be working in a far more decentralised economy, with the direct connections between people at a peer-to-peer level opening up countless opportunities to create, to trade, to share and to collaborate. The dominance of vast multinationals could give way to lateral economies of scale in which social capital becomes once again the stable bedrock of our economic lives. We could also be subject to unseen and uncontrollable manipulation by the state and corporate players who harvest data about us on an unimaginable scale, gaining power which cannot be held to any democratic account.

These are not utopian/dystopian alternatives. It’s likely that we’ll see a mixture of the best and worst that our imaginations can make of it. But a government that seeks the power and responsibility to set policy and regulation during this change should be leading public debate on the issues now.

The other story on my screen as I write concerns the UK legislation known as #DRIP to those following the debate online, and the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill to others. Treated as emergency legislation and rushed through the House of Commons on the day that most political journalists are busy covering a cabinet reshuffle, the Bill is expected to be forced through every parliamentary stage in just three days and be law by the time you read this article.

The UK Government argues that its power to access your phone and internet data is a vital part of keeping you safe. But it’s hard to deny that the Bill represents an unprecedented open acknowledgement of the change that we’ve only read about in leaks and unguarded admissions before now; that state surveillance is no longer a matter of targeting suspects who are known to pose a threat, and that the Government now sees fit to apply it routinely to the entire population, regardless of that antique notion of the presumption of innocence.

Only a handful of MPs have spoken out against it. My Green colleague Caroline Lucas is among them, and it seems likely that a few notable backbenchers from both sides of the Commons will do the same. The SNP are expressing their objection to the lack of consultation with the Scottish Government (devolved issues like policing are certainly relevant to the Bill) but I’ve not yet seen a clear commitment on how they intend to vote.

The SNP’s white paper on independence proposes that Scotland should declutter the intelligence landscape somewhat, by creating a single agency and early legislation to set out how it would be held publicly accountable. All well and good. But they also propose extensive co-operation with the UK’s intelligence agencies. To be sure, many of the threats will be similar, but will the approach to privacy and civil liberties be the same too? Kenny MacAskill says no. He acknowledges that intelligence work may interfere with “the privacy of specific individuals”, but that’s a far cry from the UK Government’s approach.

Could Scotland work closely with the UK, or the US come to that, on security and intelligence issues without compromising Scottish citizens’ privacy or their right to a presumption of innocence? Can a small country with only one internet exchange point in our own territory even achieve the technical capability to protect those principles?

Perhaps most importantly, what is the balance our citizens would want? If everything positive that’s to come from the internet and the age of Big Data comes at the cost of surrendering the very concept of privacy, is that a trade-off most people would make? Even amongst the “geek community” of bright and creative minds who have a deep understanding of the technical aspects, there is no consensus on this kind of question.

The non-state players may be even more significant in changing the cultural expectations. A generation is growing up all over the world for whom social media seem as natural and as vital as language itself. They see the potential, and they will do fantastic and creative things with it. But in countless aspects of their lives they are more commodified, more monitored and analysed, and in some ways more controlled than any generation which ever lived. Governments are struggling to catch up with the networked world, but the Googles and Apples of the world are already busy enclosing what could yet be humanity’s most valuable commons, if we choose to protect it as such.

Increasing digital participation is hugely important. Giving the next generation the digital skills they will need is vital. But if we’re to truly maximise the social, cultural and economic benefits of the networked world we’re building, and navigate the risks with care, we’ll need to ensure that people can have trust in the systems they come to depend on.

For that, the Digital Rights agenda cannot be allowed to remain the neglected aspect of this debate.

• Patrick Harvie is co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party and MSP for the Glasgow region

 

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