Week 6: Terrorism, technology and privacy

For the last couple of weeks, even before it was brought up in the supervision, I have wanted to tackle healthcare policy, but I think we have to continue our discussion on privacy given recent unfortunate events in Paris.  It is impossible to follow the sheer volume of all the comment, but much of it is what one would expect, such as calls for increased monitoring.  As a French-Algerian journalist argued, “Relaxed, liberal Paris needs to wake up — and become more like London“, i.e., more CCTV which, the argument goes, would make it harder for such terrorist attacks.  Nick Cohen in The Guardian writes ominously of the end of ‘liberal Europe’, but also how liberals dismissing citizens as being ‘far right’ or ‘racist’ because of their deeply-held concerns over security is at best counterproductive.

Are people concerned about their privacy? According to the Pew Trusts, the majority of Americans disapprove of NSA surveillance and unlike many other topics, there is actually minimal partisan divide, so it should be a subject on which one might expect to see progress.  The problem is that many surveys tend to ask questions such as ‘How important, if at all, do you think it is to maintain the privacy of your medical record/personal financial records, etc’ as in the 2014 Joseph Rowntree survey in the UK. Moving to comparative studies, EMC has a very interesting 2014 survey on privacy of 15 countries/regions where they outline a number of paradoxes, such as how, in general, most people want to have privacy but seem to do remarkably little or nothing to safeguard that privacy.  In another 2014 survey by CIGI-Ipsos of 24 countries, almost 2/3 of respondents claimed to be more concerned about their online privacy than they were a year ago and this increased concern was greatest in developing countries and just over a third believed that their private information on the internet is very secure, although respondents in developing countries were generally much more optimistic than OECD countries such as Germany (which has some of the tightest laws governing privacy). UNESCO also has a very nice global survey from 2012.

Yet a recent YouGov survey, conducted a week ago amidst discussion of Theresa May’s ‘snoopers’ charter’, finds that most Britons are quite comfortable with increased spying powers. One can only imagine that support for such government powers will only have increased over the weekend.  The question we wish to explore is whether legitimate fears create a ratchet effect since every crisis provides additional impetus for those seeking additional powers and control over information and what role technology plays at the heart of that debate.

For background, it is worth reading work such as Larry Lessig’s 2002 piece on privacy as property and Pamela Samuelson on Privacy as Intellectual Property from 1999 as well as some of the summer readings such as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. At its core, privacy becomes a debate over society’s use of technology. As Gary Marx’s piece from 1996 demonstrates though, this question is not simply a product of cheap UAVs or the internet age (indeed, one of Marx’s question is ‘is the Internet a realistic model, given its subsidization and technically relatively sophisticated users’!).

So the real question is not whether we all want more privacy (we do), but how we resolve tradeoffs between our desire for privacy with our desire for other desirable things like security (and/or economic benefits, convenience, utility, etc).

Your assignment this week

There will, no doubt, continue to be a flood of articles and opinion pieces on the subject in the coming week.  To keep everyone working on improving their writing and succinctness and also to ensure exposure to different writing styles, please choose an article from a newspaper or newsmagazine and link to that article via your twitter account. Then for your blog post this week please write a short letter to the editor (or op-ed) to that same publication as a response. Take some time to reflect on what makes for a successful letter to the editor or op-ed.  You might pick an article from more ‘liberal’ press such as the FT or The Economist or more left-wing or right-wing press from the UK or your home country, but you should take heed of The Economist’s superb style guide, which begins with George Orwell’s six elementary rules.