Cantillon: Prism debate goes deeper than safeguards

Data concerns may not be shocking, but that doesn’t mean they should be swept aside

Billy Hawkes, Data Protection Commissioner. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/ The Irish Times

Billy Hawkes, Data Protection Commissioner. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/ The Irish Times

 

For a man who only last month said there had been a “disturbing failure of governance” in some Irish public bodies found to have misused personal information stored on State databases, data protection commissioner Billy Hawkes comes across as quite relaxed about the US government’s Prism surveillance programme.

Asked by RTÉ’s Morning Ireland if he knew of this large-scale, blanket intelligence policy before last week’s headlines, Hawkes responded, as indeed many ordinary members of the public have done: “I knew in a general way. I don’t regard this particular revelation as particularly new.”

The problem is that Hawkes is not an ordinary member of the public and his failure to raise an eyebrow “makes him sound like a mere bystander”, as Joe Higgins TD put it in a statement criticising the commissioner’s response.

It is true that European and Irish laws grant law enforcement authorities rights of access to online communication records, and that this helps identify and prosecute criminal and terrorist activities.

“Our own gardaí have significant rights of access, again subject to safeguards,” Hawkes pointed out.

Uncomfortably, that would be the same gardaí that engaged in widespread inappropriate access to records on the Garda Pulse system, including accessing information about celebrities, according to the commissioner’s own annual report for 2012.

Hawkes went on to characterise whistleblower Edward Snowden’s key objection to Prism as being one of concern that there is no meaningful supervision of US authorities as they data-snoop.

“The question is, are the oversight systems sufficient to balance up the significant interference with people’s rights,” said Hawkes, whose office is responsible for monitoring Facebook’s data privacy behaviour in Europe.

In fact, Snowden has also clearly objected to the building of the intelligence infrastructure, telling the Guardian: “I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.”

He is presumably not the only one. The data privacy debate must go beyond a superficial conversation about safeguards and examine the triangle of concentrated global power that is the US government, its National Security Agency and a handful of US-owned tech giants.

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