Lawmakers 'don't get it' on privacy
:LEADING ONLINE privacy advocates have warned it’s unlikely many policymakers across Europe have gotten to grips with the vital technological aspects of online privacy.
Speaking after a debate hosted by the Centre for Irish and European Security (CIES) in Dublin this week, Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International said: “One of the bigger challenges we’re facing is that the lawmakers, the people we expect to understand the nuance of policy and technology policy, just don’t get it. It’s actually quite worrying.”
The debate – chaired by CIES director Sadhbh McCarthy – focused on the key question of whether governments can “protect fundamental online rights”.
Ben Wizner, director of the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said governments across the globe needed to “find a way to shift the paradigm to a discussion of resilience rather than fear” when addressing online privacy. In turn, citizens “must demand that our governments treat us as adults”.
Former minister for justice Dermot Ahern, who was also in attendance, rejected the idea that policymakers don’t understand the issues presented by online privacy concerns, saying such an opinion was too simplistic.
Mr Hosein responded by saying that privacy issues which concerned a concept like cryptography, for example, were perhaps “a little more complicated” than other legal questions.
“I’m not sure an attorney general can get his or her head around the intricacies of the technology,” he said.
Despite invitations to the event being sent to “every TD, Irish MEP and senator”, the only Irish policymaker to attend was Labour MEP, Emer Costello, who told The Irish Times “I really do believe people are very quick to give information away [online] without realising the implications of what they’re doing”.
Also speaking at the debate was Tony Bunyan, founder and director of civil liberties watchdog Statewatch UK. He said one of his key concerns regarding the privacy debate was that European policy prioritised the interests of industry over those of the population at large.
“We’re seeing a move across Europe away from the welfare state, where the state acted ostensibly to look after people, to the ‘market state’, where it’s not people that are first but the markets first, the multinationals that are first. It’s exactly what austerity is about.”
In this context, with large internet companies swelling in wealth, Mr Bunyan said groups like Statewatch UK and Privacy International were vital to make sure the “voice of citizens” continued to be heard.
The relationship between governments and large internet companies was a recurring theme at the debate. Joe McNamee, the head of non-profit organisation European Digital Rights, pointed out that in many cases lawmakers were “waiting on the lead from the Googles of this world”, rather than bringing up nuanced arguments on how to balance the privacy rights of citizens with the State’s legal concerns over online criminal activity.
Mr McNamee pointed to last week’s leaked documentation regarding the European Commission-funded CleanIT project, which seeks to “counter the illegal use of the internet”, as evidence that those in the Commission had “no concept” of what they wanted in relation to privacy, other than following a “can you please persuade industry to do anything, so that we can say that something is being done?” approach.
A €400,000 project run by the Commission’s Prevention of and Fight against Crime Programme, the leaked document showed that, among the suggested proposals is a recommendation for internet companies to ban unwelcome activity through their terms of service.
The document advised, he noted, that the terms themselves “should not be very detailed”.
Such concepts, said Mr McNamee, were “completely contradictory of the EU’s own fundamental, core rules”.
Meanwhile, Mr Hosein warned that the relationship between governments and large internet organisations had to be questioned further in the coming years. Just as law enforcement agencies previously needed a warrant to see private documents, he said, governments could now request “secret access” to online data. “They could go to Google and ask them very nicely, and go through the proper processes, like getting a judicial warrant, and justify very carefully why they need to have access to my data,” he said.
He said the near future would probably see governments “colluding” and starting to create “secret agreements, or at best open conventions” to share the data they got their hands on.
However, he did add that, were large online organisations to allow widespread access to the data they housed, it would most likely “destroy confidence in electronic commerce altogether”.