Pots and Kettles

Pots and Kettles
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Fascinating debate in the online version of the Guardian on Saturday (2013-10-12) under the title “Spooks and secrets: what is the public’s right to know?”. In it, Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of the British civil liberties advocacy organisation Liberty, and ex-MI6 officer Nigel Inkster debated the rights and wrongs of exposing the activities of the UK and US security and intelligence services. The context of course is that of Edward Snowdon’s revelations about the “collect it all” strategies revealed by the US Prism and the UK Tempora programs, and the recent outbreak of active political debate (at last!) about this.

I think a dispassionate observer would hand the debate to Shami Chakrabarti both in terms of content and style. Although the arguments deployed on both sides of the debate are by now well-rehearsed, the debate was useful as a succinct collation and summary of those arguments. However, the really striking thing about the debate was that after Inkster had deployed the familiar arguments of “we’re beset by all sorts of baddies so you’ve got to let us have access to all your online activities” and “you’ve nothing to fear because we know you’re not the baddies, and we’re terribly nice chaps so you can trust us”, and having had those arguments shot to pieces in short order by Ms Chakrabarti, Inkster then deployed the “but we’re not as bad as Google/Facebook/etc.” argument. He wrote:

“I agree that living in a world where so much can be inferred about us from our online behaviour is a cause for concern… We have allowed our online behaviour to be commoditised in the interests of convenience… Our online behaviour is analysed and sold on by the service providers…”

He then goes on to note that:

“The service providers claim this data is anonymised, but no IT expert I know believes that the measures taken provide real personal anonymity.”

And that’s from someone whose experts are presumably the IT wizards who put together the Prism and Temporara programs, and I have to admit that they probably know what they’re talking about! At this point he seems to change sides and points out:

“And anyway, who is responsible for verifying that (that our personal data really is anonymised”)? And what measures are in place to control the activities of the big IT service providers?”

And Inkster then proposes that:

“There needs to be a debate about big data. The intelligence dimension is a part – but only a part – of that.”

When a spokesman who’s tasked with defending the practices of the intelligence community does so by arguing in these terms it looks like the debate is effectively over. As Nigel Inkster goes on to say:

“Big data changes our relationship with information and requires us to think about privacy in different ways. We need to develop a new set of criteria, new professional competencies and professional standards for handling big data. And we do need limitations on what information can be held by whom and for how long.”

And we would add, on how they obtain that information, how they get permission to use it, what they give to the owner of that data in exchange for having access, and so on. Whether we should be more concerned about the activities of the internet companies rather than the intelligence services, as Nigel Inkster suggests we should, or vice versa, or whether what we have here is a clear case of pots and kettles it does seem that it’s time to move the debate on.

What we now need is a debate not about whether the way personal data is handled should change, but about what those changes should be, and about the practicalities of putting those changes into practice.