This article first published at DisruptiveViews
Data and its collection and use is becoming the most debated issue of our time. Governments struggle to find a proper balance between privacy for their citizens and security for their citizens. The trouble is that there are so many strong views on the matter that either the solution will be “watered down” or a Government will become very unpopular.
The United States is far from providing a lead on this issue. The House of Representatives has passed, by a vote of 338-88, the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would end the government's phone surveillance database. So, privacy wins?
Actually no. It means that there will be no shared database for Government agencies to access. The data will remain with individual phone companies. Those who voted against the Freedom Bill did so because it did not go far enough in giving people back their privacy. The conclusion is that the Bill is a bi-partisan compromise. Now, to delay things further, it heads up the Hill to the Senate. Some there say that the database should not be ended at all. Some parts of the Patriot Act, hurried through by President George W. Bush soon after 9/11, are set to expire next month. So, things need to speed up. And, inevitably, there will be a compromise and inevitably the debate will continue.
Across the globe, the Australian Government is not popular with telcos. It decided that collecting and keeping customer metadata should be mandatory and for a term of two years. It is contributing $131 million towards the cost of setting this up. This seems generous, until you read that the total cost of the scheme, by the Government’s own reckoning, will be over $300 million. So, much of the cost of compulsory customer surveillance will be borne by the, er, customers. They won’t like that.
In Europe, where it is almost impossible to implement a pan-European agreement on anything, it seems that the UK surveillance agency, GCHQ, has been spying on companies large and small for years. Germany’s Angela Merkel is under attack for allowing collaboration between her own intelligence agency and the NSA in the USA. Generally, there is no clear strategy but lots of talk.
Meanwhile, almost on cue, Googlehas refused to remove 59% of URLs from search results (or 457,958) as demanded by the European Court of Justice. These were results that people requested be removed under the “right to be forgotten” rules. Whether Google will defend this combative move on the basis that they live in a “freedom of information” world or simply that the ones they decided to keep come under the heading of “public interest” remains to be seen. Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame believes this gives Google the right to be “history’s arbiter”. Maybe it already is.
The privacy issue will rumble on. There will be compromise at one corner, strict regulation in another and a laissez-faire approach at another. One thing is for sure – while Governments and telcos wrestle with these issues of privacy and data ethics, Google and the like will charge ahead, do what they like and clean up any mess they leave behind after the event and only when they are forced to.
We live in interesting times.